Oddly, it seems to me, the world has gone mad for toilet paper. Almost as soon as schools and businesses began to close in reaction to the threat of Covid-19, and “social distancing” became a familiar term and practice, toilet paper disappeared from store shelves. I don’t know why that happened; I assume there are people somewhere who have reams of the stuff in their basements, secure in the knowledge that no matter what Armageddon might come, they at least will be able to wipe their bums.
We’re into the fourth week of this strange new reality, and there is still no toilet paper on the shelves of the grocery store in the small town where I live. Of course I don’t go there every day, so it’s possible stock came in, and it was all purchased by the time I again visited. And before the kind souls out there offer to drop a roll at my house, thank you, I’m alright; I found some at my local pharmacy. But the odd practice of hoarding something like toilet paper got me thinking about the product we so take for granted. Everyone jokes about people way back when using pages of the Eaton’s catalog – or the Sears Roebuck catalog, if you’re American – so I wondered, when did the toilet paper we know and love today become a staple of our world?
Paper, of course, was invented by the ever-innovative Chinese, and there are various references to its use in tidying up the nether regions. The earliest of these is accredited to a Chinese scholar named Yan Zhitui who wrote in 589 AD, “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics [of Confucianism] or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty and a brutal tyrant who ruled as Emperor Hongwu in the 14th century, requisitioned many thousands of sheets of scented, extra-soft toilet paper with which to pamper his backside.
The rest of the world, for the most part, made use of whatever was at hand: leaves, hay, moss, even seashells, stones, or snow, depending on location and season. Eventually, paper came into widespread use as a bum wipe for more than just the Chinese, although not until sometime in the 18th century with the ready availability of broadsheets, cheap novels and news flyers. This frugal re-purposing continued to be the method of choice for cleaning the bottom well into the next century.
A quick google will tell you that the toilet paper we’re familiar with, or at least similar to what we use today (when we can find it), was invented by an American, Joseph C. Gayetty, in the late 1850s, and certainly you can find advertisements for his “medicated paper” in the newspapers of the time.
In fact, Gayetty was so confident in his “discovery” that he paid for his ad to be repeated down one complete column of the New York Times – twenty-one little boxes all asserting that “its merits as a household’s, traveler’s, and cleanly person’s comfort are making it popular everywhere.” Even better than that, Gayetty claimed, it was a “sure cure for Piles, and also guarantees the healthy who may use it against any touch of that afflictive and torturing disease.” Gayetty bet his bottom dollar on the product, and even watermarked his name onto every sheet.
Gayetty, obviously, was going for more than the cleanliness angle, perhaps reasoning that if not everyone was worried about the fastidiousness of their posterior, they surely cared about their health. His paper, he asserted, manufactured from a buff-coloured fibre known as Manila hemp and treated with aloe as a lubricant, would not only relieve but prevent hemorrhoids – “this distressing complaint” – and as an added bonus it dissolved in water, and would not “choke the water pipe.” While plumbers and homeowners might have been pleased with both features, Gayetty’s medical claims for his paper drew the skepticism of the scientific community of the day.
There were plenty of dubious curative products in the 19th century, and the learned gentlemen writing in journals like The Medical and Surgical Reporter in the United States and Britain’s The Lancet poo-poo’d what they termed Gayetty’s “quackery.” The Lancet called Gayetty’s claim of a curative property an “absurdity,” and noted, mockingly, that “it might be of use to the surgeons who take the rectal region under their care to know that the prognosis, pathology, and therapeutics of this malady are simplified in an uncommon degree, and that their occupation is now gone to the Walls.” The Medical and Surgical Reporter, similarly poking fun at Gayetty’s invention, wrote that “Empirism has changed tactics. Its usual bold effrontery is turned to attack the public in the rear. Mr. Gayetty of New York intends to take advantage of them by catching them with their breeches down, and bring them to the stern necessity of buying his “medicated paper for the water closet.”” And if that wasn’t enough ridicule, the Reporter included a delicious quote from The New Orleans Medical and Hospital Gazette, suggesting that poor Mr. Gayetty “not only place his autograph on each sheet of his invaluable paper … but that he furnish his millions of patrons with his photograph, in like manner. … We are really anxious to see the face of the man who is going to eclipse even homeopathy in the inestimable benefits he thus rubs into mankind; and then, again, it would be such a capital idea to be thus cheering up the sufferer by smiling on the very seat of his troubles.”
One wonders how Mr. Gayetty could hold his head up in public, as the butt of such ridicule. Yet his papers remained for sale in their tidy little packets, bought, used and subsequently flushed, until the 1920s. In the meantime, others had moved into the toilet paper market, although most companies focused on the wipes as an aid to hygiene rather than as curative marvels.
Before long, Mr. Gayetty’s boastful ads were joined by others touting the unmedicated sister product, plain old toilet paper (or the more delicate bathroom tissue), with names like Lion and Mouser – presumably they were “kitten soft”. Each manufacturer took a slightly different approach to selling the product, but most seemed to agree with the buying public that toilet paper fell within the realm of the unmentionable. Customers sidled up to the druggist’s counter and asked for the paper on the sly, and the druggist, complicit, surreptitiously slid the bum wad from its shelf out of sight below the counter and into a bag as if it were poop itself.
By the time ScotTissue ads appeared suggesting that customers need only murmur the brand name to their shopkeeper to have their nether-wipe wishes understood, toilet paper had undergone a transformation. People had choices. One could purchase one’s TP as a packet of stacked sheets, often with handy wire attached that allowed for hanging within easy reach of the loo, or as a single long strand, conveniently perforated to allow for easy tear-off of the required amount, and all spun tidily onto a cardboard roll. TheBrooklyn Daily Eagle’s January, 1895 edition ran a full page advertisement for the “sterling” department store Abraham and Straus listing its many products for those of impeccable taste: Alaska Sable full Circular Capes and Japanese Silk Piano Draperies, as well as “The Regent” toilet paper in roll form and “The Brooklyn” in sheets. Toilet paper had finally come out of the water closet, or perhaps in from the outhouse.
It would seem that a new age had begun, and yet, there was room for improvement. It wasn’t until 1935 that the Northern Tissue Company of Green Bay, Wisconsin advertised quilted toilet paper, but even more importantly than its supposed softness was its assurance to be “100% splinter free.” Oh.
Stay safe, everyone. And if there is toilet paper on the shelves of your store, buy only what you need.
The Lancet, October 1869
The Medical and Surgical Reporter, Vol . 1, No. 22
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 6 January, 1895
Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper, by Richard Smyth, Souvenir Press, September, 2017.
People are social animals. Generally, we like to be together, and whether that means sitting quietly with one person or moving through a street filled with many, self-isolation and quarantine and social distancing are difficult things for most of us to do. In an effort to combat the unnatural feel of being without the casual contact of our fellow man, people all over the world have been bridging the gap in creative ways. Famous musicians, comedians and artists, self-isolating like everyone else, have shared livestream performances from their living rooms. Ordinary people, practicing social distancing, have sung from balconies in Montreal, Edmonton and New York, and applauded from windowsills in European cities in tribute to healthcare workers. In Scotland, mothers organized the I Spy a Rainbow movement that has housebound children pasting artwork in windows to uplift spirits. All these efforts show how much people need to feel a part of a community, and how they want to contribute something of value in a time of crisis.
Recently a request circulated in the community where I live, generated by our small hospital, asking for anyone with sewing skills and material at hand to make face masks for use by healthcare workers. A pattern was shared, and has done the rounds via social media and emails. Elsewhere, similar efforts are ongoing. My sister wrote from Toronto about a friend who has turned her talents as a seamstress (she owns a yoga clothing company called Dear Lil’ Devas) to making masks. My other sister wrote from Peterborough about a woman she knows who works from home as an energy and sustainability analyst for architects and building planners, but who has broken out the needle and thread and started stitching face masks.
People everywhere, it seems, want to do something useful. It was not much different in 1918, when Spanish flu ravaged a world already on its knees after years of war and conflict. The Red Cross on both sides of the Atlantic encouraged the sewing of homemade masks, and a newspaper in California declared them “absolutely necessary to safeguard citizens against the further spread of the epidemic.” In Boston, the commissioner of health urged citizens to “make any kind of mask, any kind of covering for the nose and mouth and use it immediately and at all times,” and that city’s Daily Globe newspaper shared instructions on the making of gauze masks. In England, the Evening Telegraph and Post reported that the Red Cross Society was “busy making anti-influenza masks to cover the mouth and nostrils.” They were for the use of soldiers “returning to the Colonies [and would be] worn on the voyage.” Here in Canada, the Alberta government made wearing masks in public compulsory, while in Regina, Saskatchewan, where the masks were not mandatory, a person could be fined for coughing, sneezing or spitting in public.
Not everyone thought the masks a good idea. In San Francisco, a dispute over masks turned violent when Henry Miller, a deputy health officer, shot a horse-shoer named James Wisser in front of a drug store when he refused to don a face mask. Wisser was taken to hospital with a gunshot wound to his leg and there placed under arrest for failing to obey Miller’s order.
In Canada, opinion was also divided, with some provinces making face mask use mandatory and others not. Lloydminster, a municipality straddling the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, had the unique dilemma of two opposing laws in effect in the same town. As the Edmonton Journal reported, “when a number of the citizens of Lloydminster, Sask., crossed the street and came into Lloydminster, Alberta without masks, they were summoned to court. Despite the fact that they claimed only to have strolled over for casual errands of business or pleasure, they were fined for violating the law, and went back to their own side of the street in indignation.”
Nor could the medical community agree on who should use a face mask. Dr. Thomas Whitelaw, Medical Officer of Health for Edmonton, wrote in the December 1919 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal that even after the Alberta government ordered everyone to wear a mask outside their homes, the number of cases continued to increase, and, he alleged, “public confidence in it as a prevention soon gave place to ridicule.”
Dr. Henry Bracken, Secretary of the Minnesota State Board of Health, encouraged the wearing of masks by the public, and the Board issued instruction for the use of the masks. “The outside of a face mask is marked with a black thread woven into it. Always wear this side away from the face. Wear the mask to cover the nose and the mouth, tying two tapes around the head above the ears. Tie the other tapes rather tightly around the neck. Never wear the mask of another person. When the mask is removed … it should be carefully folded with the inside folded in, immediately boiled and disinfected. When the mask is removed by one seeking to protect himself from the influenza it should be folded with the inside folded out and boiled ten minutes. Persons considerably exposed to the disease should boil their masks at least once a day.” Despite this advocacy, though, Dr. Bracken himself chose not to wear one, saying “I personally prefer to take my chances.”
So are the homemade masks a good idea? One hundred plus years after the debates of 1918, opinion remains divided. Now, as then, there will be those who feel as Dr. Bracken did, and who will make the choice to go without. At the same time, people will come together, however virtually, to share their face mask patterns and know-how, to join in song or tell a story or draw a picture. And at the end of the day, we can take heart from the caption written on a Scottish child’s rainbow drawing: smiles are contagious.
If you’ve gone down rabbit holes in search of elusive ancestors and found yourself in a maze-like world of tunnels and loops and switchbacks, you’ll understand the tale I’m about to share. Those of you who’ve read The Cowkeeper’s Wish will know who Jennie (Jane) is: one of the cowkeeper’s granddaughters, married in 1890 to a shoemaker named Richard Vanson, and our great-great aunt. Some of the Vanson story we’ve told in the book, and some in a previous post. They’re an interesting bunch. From a brush with the law to their connection with one of Jack the Ripper’s victims, this part of our family tree has skeletons aplenty in its closet, and I stumbled across a few more while trying to puzzle out what had become of Jennie and her daughters after Jennie’s husband Richard died of tuberculosis in 1911.
For people of our family’s social standing, it wasn’t easy to be a widow in the early days of the 20th century, before pensions and social safety nets, and it was even harder if you had children to worry about. Two months after her husband’s death, forty-year-old Jennie wrote on the census form in a messy scrawl that she lived at 30 Burdett Chambers in Lambeth (the same address she’d shared with her shoemaker husband), along with two of her daughters: eighteen-year-old Florence, a tailoress, and the youngest, Ada, who was four. Jennie reported working as an office cleaner, and although she also wrote answers to the questions regarding her years of marriage and children, someone, presumably the enumerator, stroked through the numbers with a heavy pen, since as a widow she need not have recorded them. But the information she’d penned remained legible, and what I read offered no surprises: she’d been married for twenty years, and had borne six children, of whom four were living and two were dead. A further census search revealed that her other surviving daughters, Nellie Jane and Alice, resided nearby. The eldest, nineteen-year-old Nellie Jane, lived at 45 Trinity Square in the neighbouring Borough, in the home of John Alexander, a surgeon and clinical assistant at the Evelina Hospital for Children. Dr. Alexander had taken over the practice operated at the Trinity Square address by his father, Charles Linton Alexander, who had died in 1887. Nellie Jane was John Alexander’s “general servant, domestic”, so her day was spent sweeping, dusting, scrubbing, laying fires and serving at mealtimes.
I found Jennie’s other daughter Alice, also nearby, living with her uncle George Vanson, his wife Edith and their daughter Isabel a few blocks east along Waterloo Road from Burdett Street. Despite her young age, fourteen-year-old Alice had a more unusual job than her sisters or her mother, employed as an apprentice perruquier (wig-maker) for H&M Rayne, a company that made costumes for the theatre industry.
Cousin Isabel, a couple of years older, also worked for Rayne, learning the skill of costume-making. H&M Rayne was headquartered just steps from Uncle George’s Webber Row address in Lambeth, so given the close proximity of the costumier, living with her Uncle George was a sensible choice for Alice.
If Alice and Isabel’s jobs sound interesting, Uncle George and Aunt Edith’s were more mundane. George was a dock worker, one of thousands of casual, unskilled labourers whose livelihood depended on what work was available when he showed up at the docks each morning hoping to be selected for a crew. A docker’s work was hard, dirty, and poorly paid, and a shift might last an hour or two, or stretch into the night, and depending on the cargo – lead, asbestos, fertilizers – could be dangerous. Edith toiled as a charwoman, an occupation not unlike George’s in that it was hard work and the pay meagre. To be a char was to be at the bottom of the domestic service hierarchy, and for most women, charing was a last resort before knocking on the workhouse door. George and Edith were barely getting by, so Alice and Isabel’s income was surely welcome.
Edith was about thirteen years older than George, and he was her second husband. Her first, Frank Pitcher, had been an inmate at Cane Hill Asylum, a place that readers of The Cowkeeper’s Wish will be familiar with. Admitted in 1888 when Frank and Edith had been married eighteen years, his admittance documents say he’d been “getting gradually worse for four years” and that he’d been “living apart” from Edith for some time. Poor Law records describe him as a “lunatic” who refused medicine, and occasionally food, believing them to be poisoned. He wandered aimlessly, his case notes state, required constant supervision and was “very wet and dirty night and day.” The casebook also revealed that his next-of-kin was his stepmother, as his wife’s whereabouts were unknown.
But in fact, Edith hadn’t gone far. I found her in 1891, living with her children in St Margaret’s Court, a street described by social investigators as “a bad quarter,” and yet also “a little village by itself” with a “brave show of flowers at west end.” St. Margaret’s Court was one of many narrow passages that led off Red Cross Street in Southwark where Jennie Vanson resided, newly wed to Richard, and was presumably where Edith was still living when she met Richard’s brother, George. Frank Pitcher remained a lunatic asylum inmate until his death in 1893, and three years after he died, in 1896, Edith married George Vanson. In my search for the trail of Jennie and her daughters, the coincidence of Cane Hill was interesting, but other than that, I dismissed George and Edith as just another of many poor couples that connected tangentially to The Cowkeeper’s Wish. But in fact the lives of George and Edith and Jennie and her daughters would be inextricably linked, and as I traced the path of the Vanson women, George would insistently appear, and eventually take on a new importance.
After finding Jennie and her girls on the 1911 census, and relegating the story of George and Edith to a sidebar, things got complicated. I looked for anything that would move the Vanson women forward in time, and discovered that Alice, our young perruquier, married in 1918 to an older man named Arthur Polley and moved to northeast London, where Arthur had his own business as a retail grocer. Ada, just four years old in 1911, married Edward McCarthy in 1932, and Florence, the tailoress, wed Fred Thomas, a carman, in 1914, and had at least two children, both born during the war years.
All of Jennie’s daughters, then, except the oldest, Nellie Jane, who’d worked for the doctor in Trinity Square, were so far accounted for. Nellie Jane proved somewhat trickier. In my hunt for her I came across a 1936 marriage index entry for a 45-year-old Nellie Jane Vanson and a 36-year-old Reginald Thomas Sanson in Eastbourne, Sussex. At first it seemed silly given the rhyme of the last names and Nellie’s age, and what on earth would a Vanson girl, come from generations of working class Londoners, be doing in a resort town on England’s south coast? Surely it wasn’t Jennie’s daughter. But then I found a death index entry in Eastbourne for a Jane Vanson, age 84 in 1955 (so born in 1871 as was our Jennie), and I reconsidered the Vanson-Sansons.
Eastbourne in the 1930s wasn’t a very big place, and I reasoned that if Jennie had died there in 1955 there might have been an obituary placed in the local paper, and it might tell me if I had the right woman. I wrote to the cemetery board in Eastbourne to ask about Jane Vanson’s burial record, and I wrote to the Eastbourne Library (which holds the Eastbourne Herald newspaper archives) to see if they could find an obituary. Both replied, and from the cemetery board I learned the exact date of death and an address on Cavendish Avenue, Eastbourne, and from the library I received an obituary for Nellie Jane that gave the same address. Things were falling into place, and it certainly seemed that this was our Jennie and her oldest daughter Nellie Jane. But how had they come to be in Eastbourne, and when, and had they come together? Was it just Nellie Jane and Jennie or was other family in Eastbourne too?
I went back to the Electoral Rolls for London and continued to fill in the missing years, first coming across Flo and Fred in 1919 (with Fred’s rank, regiment and serial number, so he’d been in the Great War) at #2 Brigade House, Southwark Bridge Road. Brigade House was part of the London Fire Brigade’s Southwark headquarters, so perhaps Fred’s job as a carman meant he drove one of the horse and wagon fire engines. In 1929, Flo’s Uncle George, the dockworker, husband of Edith, suddenly popped up at their Brigade House address. But by 1933, Fred was alone at #2. No Flo, no George. Within two years, Fred had a new partner at #2, so maybe Flo died, although I’ve found no death record that matched. George, too, was gone, but he turned up at Rowton House, a hostel for down and out men on Churchyard Row, behind St Gabriel Street in Newington.
That George’s circumstances were so reduced was a sad turn of events, and yet things might have been much worse. The Rowton House lodging houses were the best of what was available in terms of shelter for vagrants and poor single men according to the author George Orwell, who’d written from personal experience of homelessness in London in 1933. The facility where George lived had been built in 1897, the third such structure of its kind erected by Montagu Corry, 1st Baron Rowton. Lord Rowton had sought to improve the lot of poor single working men whose choices, if they had no home of their own, had ranged from filthy, bug-infested dosshouses and spartan hostels to penny sit-ups, where a penny bought a man a spot on a bench in a warm building, but did not allow him to lie down, to a park bench with the likelihood of a constable prodding him to move along.
When Rowton House in Newington Butts opened on Christmas Eve in 1897, there were 805 private sleeping cubicles with sheets, blankets, a quilt and a chamber pot, and pegs on which a fellow could hang his trousers. There were bathing facilities and lavatories in the basement, and a dining room on the ground floor that seated 400. A hot meal could be had for pennies, or a man could cook his own. There was a reading and smoking room, a barber and a tailor and a shoemaker. A man could pay for his room a week at a time in advance, and guarantee his spot, or he could take his chances and hope for a room, paying nightly. The newspapers of the day were impressed with Rowton House, and soon after the Newington location opened its doors, the South London Chronicle wrote that “the utmost good fellowship prevailed” among the inmates, and “the bill of fare [on Christmas Day] would not have shamed a high-class restaurant.”
By the time George became a resident in 1932, a wing had been added, increasing Rowton’s capacity by several hundred beds. On a night with a full house, George’s snores would have joined in a chorus with more than 1,000 other souls tucked into tiny cubicles over six floors. An account written in 1935 for The Sunderland Echo gives an idea of what life was like in Rowton House for George and men like him, past seventy and likely living on the pittance of a government Old Age Pension. He’d have kept the same room at the hostel by paying the weekly amount, and for a few more shillings he had the option of renting a locker where he could store his few possessions. In the morning, a bell-ringer travelled the hallways rousing George and the rest of the residents from their cubicles, and after a wash at the basins in the basement he and some of the other Rowton men gathered in the dining hall, making tea if they had a bit of leaf and a pot and a cup stowed in their locker, or purchasing porridge, a boiled egg and toast for a penny from the canteen. After breakfast, George might have spent some of the day in the smoking room – being illiterate he’d have had no use for the books in the reading room, and all Rowton Houses had strict rules against card playing. If the weather was fair, perhaps he’d have taken a stroll and sat for an hour on a bench in the sun before returning to Rowton in time for the evening meal. Afterwards, those with a few extra coins in their pocket would sally forth to the pubs for a pint. Those without money to spare had an early night in their cubicles. The Sunderland Echo reporter, when he’d arrived at the hostel to research his article, had received a warning from one of the officials at the house: “Keep to yourself, chum; there’s some queer men in here.” And yet the writer found the Rowton House inmates to be mostly “respectable working men, quietly dressed,” even if one or two “showed their toes sticking through the ends of their boots.”
George lived at Rowton House for thirteen years, a spartan existence toward the end of a life that had held few comforts. I wanted to know more about how he got there. In 1911 he’d been working the docks and sharing his roof with wife Edith, daughter Isabel, and niece Alice, the apprentice perruquier. In 1929 he was presumably a boarder with another niece, Alice’s sister Flo and her husband Fred. Where had George been in the years in between?
A further search located George on the Land Tax register for 1916, renting a house in St Gabriel Street, Newington Butts, a short stroll from Rowton House. The 1918 Electoral Rolls confirmed the address, and also offered the surprise of his sister-in-law, our Jennie, the mother of Flo and Alice, living with him. I was intrigued. Had George’s wife Edith died? If so, I could find no recent record. I checked for a marriage record for George and his brother’s widow, but found nothing there either. George would have been 55 and Jennie 42 in 1918, and I supposed their co-habitation could have simply been a platonic arrangement of convenience, two middle-aged relatives with next to no money supporting one another in shared lodgings. The Electoral Rolls confirmed that this relationship, whatever it was, continued until 1929, when 66-year-old George turned up at Flo and Fred’s. Did Jennie kick him out? Or did George leave on his own? And after all that time, why?
Those kinds of questions are likely never to be answered one hundred years on, and yet, it’s difficult to stop looking. I turned my focus back to Eastbourne and discovered that another of Jennie’s children, Alice, the one-time perruquier who’d married the greengrocer Arthur Polley, had also moved to Eastbourne. In 1939, the couple had still been running their grocery in northeast London, but the 1948 Kelly’s Street Directory for Eastbourne yielded an address for Arthur and Alice just a few doors down from Nellie Jane and Reginald Sanson’s Cavendish Avenue address in Eastbourne. When he died in 1951, Arthur was relatively young at just 63. Perhaps he’d been unwell, and he and Alice had moved to the seaside for his health. That left Jennie and Ada in London.
Ada, Jennie’s youngest, had been not quite five years old when her father Richard died of tuberculosis. Most likely she barely remembered him. The man to feature more prominently in her life as a father figure had been her uncle George, with whom she and her mother lived for so many years. But in 1929, George moved to Flo’s, and Ada too left when she married Edward McCarthy, a loader for the London and North Eastern Railway working out of the Farringdon Street Goods Station.
Mother and daughter remained in close proximity, though, living in different blocks of the Guinness Buildings on Brandon Street in Walworth, tenement housing erected for the urban poor that consisted of spare, two room flats with no running water or electricity, a shared toilet and sink on the landing, and pay access to bathing facilities two days of the week. They resided separately at Guinness Buildings until Jennie moved in 1954 to Eastbourne, where Nellie Jane, her husband Reginald, and the widowed Alice lived.
This might have been the end of the story, minus the unknowable details, but for a random search I did on the British Newspaper Archive website, completely apart from my Vanson research. I forget the exact parameters I searched on, but a March, 1934 headline I came across was provocative and sensationalist: “Girl Enveloped in Flames from Head to Feet. Young Hotel Servant’s Terrible End After Clothes Caught Fire.” The article appeared on the front page of the Eastbourne Gazette, and told of a young woman employed by the South Cliff Hotel in Eastbourne as a live-in chambermaid and waitress. Just off duty, the girl had been alone in her bedroom making notes in the laundry logbook when the skirt of her uniform caught fire on the gas flame of room’s heater. She was immediately engulfed in flames, and ran screaming into the nearby hotel kitchen where a porter had the presence of mind to fetch an eiderdown quilt and smother the flames. Her clothing was burnt completely away, and the porter, with the help of other staff who’d come running, laid her on her bed and covered her with blankets. She was admitted to the Princess Alice Hospital “suffering from extensive burns on her arms, legs, abdomen, chest and all over her back up to her neck,” and died the next day “due to shock following severe burning.” The inquest reported that there’d been no guard on the gas fireplace, but acknowledged that “most of us do use [gas fires] in this way.” The hotel was never considered to be culpable, although the Coroner made a point of saying that guards could be had “at very little extra cost, and they are well worth it, because they are just the thing to prevent clothes from igniting.” It was a sad tale indeed, but most interesting for me was that the young chambermaid’s name was Grace Vanson.
In all my efforts to discover the story of Jennie (Jane) Vanson and her daughters, I’d never come across anyone named Grace, but I was suddenly certain, in the way one can be with a hunch, that this was another of Jennie’s girls. The newspaper articles referring to the tragedy of Grace’s death quoted a sister, Miss Mary Jane Vanson, thanking the South Cliff Hotel’s management and staff “who had done everything that was possible for her sister” and I wondered, might the reporter have gotten it wrong, and Mary Jane was actually Nellie Jane? Elsewhere in the paper was an item of thanks “to all friends for the beautiful floral tributes and letters of sympathy” posted by Mrs. Jane Vanson and family. The Vanson story, I felt sure, had not yet revealed its final chapter.
Grace was 20 years old when she died in March of 1934, which meant she’d been born around 1914. I searched for, and found, an entry in the indexes for a birth registration that fit only too well – a Grace Vanson born in Lambeth in 1913 to a mother with the maiden name of Evans. Our Jennie had been born Jane Evans, but her husband Richard had been dead two years by the time of this Grace’s birth. If Grace was indeed Jennie’s daughter, who was the father? The only way to find out was to send for the birth registration, and when it arrived, it confirmed what I had suspected: Grace’s parents were Jane Vanson “formerly Evans” and her brother-in-law, George Vanson, a “waterside labourer”.
So how had the relationship that produced a daughter come about? Had George been a stalwart presence, supporting Jennie during Richard’s awful illness? Had he been a comfort she couldn’t do without after Richard’s death? Or had she been the one to offer George care in his time of need, when his marriage to Edith fell apart? Or was the real story something less noble, a matter of acting on impulses and giving in to attractions? One thing is certain: George’s wife Edith and their daughter Isabel were alive and living in a house on Inglemere Road in Mitcham, Surrey by 1918, and where they remained until Edith’s death, oddly enough in the same month and year as Grace’s – March, 1934. In contrast to Grace’s demise, fraught with tragedy and pathos, Edith’s, at the ripe age of 84, while surely sad for her unmarried daughter and companion Isabel and her Pitcher offspring, was in comparison, unremarkable and ordinary. Did Isabel send a note to her father at Rowton House, sharing the news of his wife’s death? Did George ever hear about his daughter Grace’s tragic end in the seaside resort town of Eastbourne?
George died of heart failure and a stroke on the 21st of January, 1945. The record states that he was 79, but counting from his birth in 1863 he was actually 82. The record also indicates that George’s regular place of residence was still the tiny cubicle at Rowton House in London, yet his death occurred at an address in Worthing, a coastal town only a few miles from Eastbourne. It’s tempting to think that this means something, that perhaps George was reconciled with Jennie and the remainder of her family in the end, but I’ve found nothing to substantiate the idea, and in 1945 Jennie still lived in London at Guinness Buildings. Sometime in 1954, she left London and moved in with Nellie Jane and her husband, sharing their tidy two storey rowhouse just a few blocks from the seafront. It must have seemed like a different world to her. Instead of the traffic and people noises she’d heard all her life, she’d have heard the cry of gulls and the crash of the surf. In place of the familiar smells of vehicle exhaust and sewers and other people’s cooking were the odours of fish and tangy salt water. On warm days she and Nellie Jane and Alice might have strolled the beachfront promenade, or walked out on the pier, and turned their faces to the sun. She didn’t live long after her move to Eastbourne, but it’s nice to think of her in that tranquil setting, spending her last days in the company of her daughters. Jennie died on the 19th of March, 1955, and was buried at the Ocklynge Cemetery in Eastbourne.
Eastbourne Gazette, Wednesday, March 21, 1934
Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, Friday, July 19, 1935
South London Chronicle, January 1, 1898
Rogues and Vagabonds: Vagrant Underworld in Britain 1815-1985, by Lionel Rose, Routledge, Oxon, 1988
Our great aunt and uncle, Ethel and Ernie Deverill, came to London, Ontario, from London, England, in the 1920s, two young single people with relatives on either side of the ocean, none of whom could have afforded to help pay their way. Domestics and farm labourers were in demand in Canada at the time, and a variety of emigration schemes existed to match people to available jobs. Though it has never been determined with certainty that Ethel and Ernie came here under one of those programs, it’s likely, since Ethel’s entry documents claimed she would be working as a domestic with a job awaiting her, and Ernie’s showed that he had already been hired as a farm labourer, despite having little or no experience. Essentially, they came with scant possessions, and enthusiasm for a new start. Almost twenty years earlier, the fact they were from one of the have-not boroughs of London would have singled them out as undesirables, two among thousands of London poor broadly labeled “the degenerate ‘Cockney’.”
Since at least the 1860s, charitable organizations operating in London’s East End, the Borough, and other impoverished areas of the city had been sending London’s poor to Canada in large numbers. The Salvation Army, the East End Emigration Fund, the Charity Organisation Society and a handful of other philanthropic agencies developed various schemes to facilitate the transportation and resettlement of prospective emigrants. And while Canada needed and wanted the influx, many of these new arrivals were not the choice candidates sought, and were often looked on with suspicion and even hostility, an attitude indicative in part of a class prejudice that assumed these immigrants were not only lazy, weak, ill and incapable, but included an intrinsic criminal element.
Until 1906, Canada’s immigration policy had been relatively open, and British people, given the historic, matriarchal relationship between the two countries, had been preferred. Reverend James Shaver Woodsworth,
a Methodist minister and politician who would become a major influence on Canadian social policy, summed up the view of many when he wrote: “We need more of our own blood to assist us in maintaining in Canada our British traditions and mold the incoming armies of foreigners into loyal British subjects.” But assisted immigrants, Woodsworth maintained, and particularly those from London’s poorest warrens – Whitechapel, the Borough, Shoreditch and the like – were not what he had in mind. In his book Strangers Within Our Gates, or Coming Canadians, Woodsworth gave the example of a young family from Whitechapel, the husband a dyer, the wife a lace-maker. Together with their children, they arrived in Canada thanks to a charitable organization program, ostensibly to farm on the prairies, but, as Woodsworth writes, “They never got beyond Winnipeg. The man was not strong enough physically to farm, and his eyesight was defective. Before many months the wife was in the courts accusing her husband of assault. The children were sickly; after about a year it was discovered that the little boy was weak-minded. The ‘home’ was a copy of the homes in the slums of East London.”
A correspondent for the Times of London, writing in 1908 from Toronto and quoting a Canadian newspaper proprietor, agreed.
One hears the same thing everywhere – the Englishman who succeeds [in Canada] is hardly ever a Londoner; the Englishman who fails completely is almost always a Londoner. … It is these people who are the curse of the Empire, who are the cause of the “No English Need Apply” advertisements, who are doomed to fail wherever they go, who are, and must remain, helpless, shiftless wrecks. For many years the philanthropists, the clergy, the students of sociology have been declaring that “something must be done” for these poor stunted victims of generations of city life, of heedlessness and misgovernment. Recently the “something” has taken the form of assisted emigration, under the pitifully mistaken idea that clearer skies and more generous space and unvitiated air will transform a man or woman who has attained full growth from a useless to a useful member of the community. It will not do. In the second generation, perhaps, there may be a change, for, after all, there is good stock in these “submerged” millions. In the meanwhile, however, they are a burden on communities that can ill afford it, and they are becoming a source of irritation on the part of the Colonies toward the Mother Country.
This “irritation” had translated into legislation in Canada, aimed at curbing what J.S. Woodsworth called “the “dumping” of these unfortunates into Canada. In 1906, the Canadian government had tightened its immigration laws to try to encourage the arrival of persons with qualifications more suited to the country’s needs – mainly farm labour – and the emigration agencies in London made at least a perfunctory effort at complying. But the observations of the correspondent from the Times in 1907 and letters such as the one sent by the Ontario Department of Agriculture in Toronto and published in the East London Observer in 1907 complaining about a group of recent arrivals from Poplar, illustrated their meagre success.
On Sunday night there arrived here thirty-one men, bringing cards of introduction from L. Leopold [the Official Labour Representative in Europe for the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association.] I interviewed some of [the men] yesterday morning, and, picking out the one that appeared least drunk of the lot, I learned that they had been engaged on some farm colony for some three or four months. They received an express order when they landed, which they cashed in Toronto, and immediately proceeded to get drunk. At the lodging-house last night they raised such a disturbance that they had to send for the patrol wagon and send several of them to the police station. We sent a few to Harrowsmith this morning, and they will probably work in some mine; but I do not think they are at all fit men to send to farms, although they are said by Leopold to be wanting farm work. They did not want to go on farms, and I do not think they would be the kind of men whom it would be safe to send into a farm house. They are, without exception, the toughest lot that I have seen for years.
Still, the agencies in London soldiered on, and reported their own statistics to demonstrate the success of their ventures. The Daily Telegraph Shilling Fund and its associated charities suggested that “a better, fitter set of emigrants had never been selected to leave our shores,” while other reports stated that a full 90 per cent of Salvation Army emigrants had found success in agricultural jobs in Canada.
The key, they believed, was in “raising the standard” of the emigrants, and providing prior training on farm colonies. But Canada saw the issue differently. Of the 6,096 emigrants sent by the East End Emigration Fund in 1906/7, almost 250 were denied entry to Canada upon arrival, and returned to England immediately. The following year, 70 per cent of all deportations from Canada were British.
The First World War put a halt to most emigration, but when the war ended there were new challenges. With so many unemployed, the British government began to take an interest in emigration, an area previously left, for the most part, to faith-based and philanthropic organizations like the Salvation Army and Girls’ Friendly Society. The government held a conference on Empire settlement, and invited Canada, Australia and New Zealand to the table, coming away with an understanding of their intersecting goals: in Britain, to facilitate the assisted emigration of their unemployed and strengthen allegiances within the Empire, and in the Dominions, to attract preferred immigrants – men with employable skills or those who would farm the land, and healthy women with domestic skills, all preferably British and white, so as not to dilute their culture.
The outcome was the Empire Settlement Act of 1922, a compromise meant to address the fact that Britain did not want to give up her skilled workers, and the Dominions did not want paupers. Training programs for farm work were set up, and although they’d existed prior to this – the Salvation Army, for example, ran Hadleigh Farm; the Waifs and Strays Society had a colony in Staffordshire – the government hadn’t contributed funding. The result was a sort of partnership between the government and the already existing agencies, and although it’s not clear if any of them facilitated Ernie and Ethel Deverill’s move to Canada a few years later, he as a farm labourer and she as a domestic, however their immigration came about, it was a different experience from that of our great grandfather, George Cartwright, who’d emigrated from London, England in 1907.
Family lore recounts George’s struggle to find employment once in Canada, recalling the window signs warning that “Englishmen Need Not Apply.” After traipsing over much of southern Ontario in his search for employment he eventually found maintenance work in London at McCormick’s Biscuit Factory, the so-called “Sunshine Palace,” with its hundreds of sparkling windows and its pristine white walls. Ernie Deverill, perched on a different limb of the family tree and arriving in Canada nearly twenty years after George, was almost certainly unsuited for the farm job he’d come to do, but he too soon found work that was a better fit, mopping and scrubbing his way from the offices and hallways of that same factory to the homes of the company’s managers.
Though neither George nor Ernie were ever going to make it as farmers, and Ethel did not labour long as a paid domestic, neither were they “degenerate ‘Cockney[s]’”. George was by all accounts an honest and loyal man, and a hard worker. A photograph of him at work bears the caption “Who keeps Mc’s going? Pa!” Ethel married within months of her arrival and became a domestic of a different sort, running a household and raising a family of Canadians. Ernie, small and humble, might not have been shocked to know that the poorest Londoners hadn’t been welcome in the country he’d come to. After all, he’d grown up as one of them and had seen the ways of the drunk and the destitute. But he’d been given a chance and he’d taken it, and though he never aspired beyond his brooms and buckets, he worked at the same factory his whole adult life, a Londoner who succeeded where many had expected him to fail.
“The Out of Work Englishman in Canada – An Indictment of the Londoner.” Yorkshire Post, December 7, 1908.
“Exporting “people of British stock”: training and immigration policy in inter-war Britain.” Field, John, University of Stirling, Scotland, 2010.
Strangers Within our Gates, Woodsworth, J.S., The Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, 1909.
“Emigration.” East London Observer, June 1, 1907.
“Prosperity follows settlement in any part of Canada: Letters from satisfied settlers.” Minister of the Interior, 1909.
As difficult as it was to select the few threads that would become the focus of The Cowkeeper’s Wish, in the interest of brevity we cut our great grandfather’s twice married but never divorced sister Kate, and the brother-in-law who claimed to be the son of an Indian Commissioner and knight, but who worked as a porter. To ensure the book did not end up as a massive tome we erased a several times great uncle – a publican whose son threatened to burn down his hotel — and we did not share the tangent we traveled to learn about George Duckworth, the aristocrat who worked unpaid for a decade to help Charles Booth with his extensive study of London’s poor. Duckworth’s detailed notes were invaluable to us in recreating the streets and places in The Cowkeeper’s Wish, but, horribly, he was accused of molesting his half-sisters, writer Virginia Woolf and painter Vanessa Bell.
Brow-raisers aplenty we’ve stumbled across while writing and researching, and it seems there’s no single branch of our gnarled tree that does not contain a knot or two. Even the family ensconced in what Duckworth called “happy Plumstead,” with its grassy heaths and heady woodlands and the scent of flowers in the air, had its surprises.
Let me begin with Edwin Curtis, our great grandmother Emily’s forebear, and a cowkeeper like the Benjamin Jones in our book title, although in rather different circumstances. Edwin came to the dairy trade in a roundabout way. The second son of a butcher and grocer, he’d grown up in Salperton, Gloucestershire, in the heart of southwest England’s Cotswold Hills. He spent his unmarried years working as an agriculture labourer, but by the time he wed his wife Elizabeth Bryant in 1859, he and his father had swapped occupations – Edwin was the butcher and his father a farmer. But like Benjamin Jones and so many others before him, Edwin saw his future elsewhere. Instead of choosing the life of a city dweller for himself and his cows as Benjamin had done, Edwin’s path took him to High Grove Farm in Plumstead, where his cattle, eating sweet grass and drinking clean water, presumably enjoyed an existence more pleasant than Benjamin’s cows, housed in the muck and foul air of the Borough. Though just twelve miles from London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, George Duckworth noted, here “nightingales still sing, pheasants are still preserved, and bluebells carpet the woods.”
In this seemingly idyllic setting Edwin and Elizabeth raised a family of six children. When they died within a few years of each other soon after the turn of the century, the farm was passed down to two of their sons who, at age 48 and 37, had remained unmarried. While the elder of the brothers had a job at one of the many factories that had sprung up on the flats down by the Thames, and in his off hours tended the farm’s horses, the younger worked full time on the farm, following in his father’s footsteps as a cowkeeper. But there are no tales of filthy, diluted milk here, as there was with Benjamin Jones. Instead, the surprise that surfaced in this story was the teenage niece, Bea, who lived with them, helping out as a housekeeper, although it seems more was going on than the sweeping of floors and the washing of dishes.
Can you marry your uncle? According to the Table of Kindred and Affinity found at the back of the Anglican Book of Prayer “Wherein, Whosoever are related, are forbidden in Scripture, and our laws, to Marry together,” the answer is no, and has been since at least 1560, when the table was first established.
But in “happy Plumstead,” amongst the blooms of June 1913, Bea and her uncle did just that at the Woolwich Registry Office, where a Notice of Intention to Marry would have been posted for three weeks prior to the event. Presumably no one stepped forward to object, but it’s hard not to suppose there would have been whispers behind hands, elbows nudged, and glances exchanged, for surely within that relatively small community people knew of the close relationship, and that it was illegal, and, most would judge, immoral. And yet it occurred, and the official record remains to prove it, duly signed by the registrar and the deputy superintendent who performed the ceremony. Signing as witnesses to the ceremony were the older brother of the groom (another uncle to the bride), and someone with the same last name and first initial as the bride’s mother, although almost ten years earlier that same woman had disowned another daughter, our great grandmother Emily, for reasons that can only be speculation a century and more gone. And yet what can have been Emily’s crime, if the mother approved of such a match for her sister Bea?
Family historians are innately curious, as are writers, and when a tidbit such as the estrangement of a mother and her daughter is dangled before us, how can we help but try to figure out why such a thing might have happened? In this case, the obvious reason for the parting of ways seemed to be Emily’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, established by the date of her marriage and the birth date of her first child. But if this was the reason for the mother’s harsh treatment, it was sadly hypocritical, for records show the mother herself had been a pregnant bride. Perhaps the mother had simply disliked George, her daughter’s chosen husband. But this too seemed unlikely. George was by all accounts an amiable, capable, dependable fellow who loved Emily, and had been friendly with her family for years before he and Emily married.
Some things are simply unknowable, and it appeared we would never find out what had occurred to cause the rift between mother and daughter. Then, soon after The Cowkeeper’s Wish went to print, we came across an item in The Kentish Independent newspaper, dating from 1906. “Robbing Uncle,” was the headline, and there, in black and white, was a story that had not been passed down through the generations. Our great grandmother, employed to do housework at her uncle’s dairy farm, had stolen money from him – twice – and been caught. The uncle was the same man who would later marry her sister.
The article tells us that the uncle had noticed money missing from the locked box in his bedroom, and went to the police. They set a trap for the thief, placing twenty marked sovereigns in the box, and leaving the key in its usual location, the pocket of the uncle’s coat. When several of the marked coins immediately went missing, the police arrested Emily, hauling her off a tram and bringing her back to the scene of the crime. A dramatic encounter followed, with Emily pulling the coins from her stocking and pleading for leniency.
“Please don’t prosecute me, Steve,” the newspaper quoted, “I will give [the money] back. … I have only had the two lots. I took [it] because I was going to have a little one, and had not money.”
Detective Sergeant Webber, testifying at the hearing, told the magistrate that Emily “was a perfectly respectable woman, and her husband, who was in court, was willing to repay the [money] if he was given a few days.” In the end, though, the magistrate felt it best to continue with prosecution, and sent her for trial at the South London Sessions. No record has been found to give us details of that awful experience, but the judge must have decided to be lenient, perhaps at her uncle’s request, or maybe because Emily and her husband revealed plans to emigrate to Canada, which they did the following year.
But even this sorry tale does not tell the whole story of the estrangement. If the theft was the reason for the rift, why did the mother (according to family lore) refuse to attend Emily’s wedding, which had taken place before the incident? Sadly, the dispute between them remained unresolved, and they never again spoke or even wrote to one another.
Years later, after both women had died, one of Emily’s sons visited the town she’d left all that time ago, and found not only long lost aunts, uncles and cousins, but a warm welcome besides.
“Robbing Uncle”, The Kentish Independent, August 31, 1906
There’s a 1916 photograph in our family collection that shows three young boys sitting cross-legged on the grass, wearing buttoned-up suit coats with wide lapels, neckties and knee-length knickerbocker pants. Freckled faces peer out from beneath straw boater hats, and one of the boys squints slightly, as if the sun over the shoulder of the photographer beams down on them. The boy on the right is our grandfather, Bill Cartwright, and alongside him are his brothers, George and Jack. Forming the background are the long skirts and folded hands of seated ladies, and along the bottom of the picture someone has written “McCormick’s Picknic 1916.”
McCormick’s was the London, Ontario, biscuit and candy company that employed Bill’s dad, George Cartwight, and, coincidentally, Ernie Deverill, our great uncle from the other side of the family. But in 1916, Ernie and George hadn’t met, and in fact Ernie was still a teenager, living in England and scanning the skies for Zeppelins. There was no hint yet that Ernie’s fortunes would bring him to Canada, or that his future would become so intrinsically linked with George’s son Bill, and that one day they’d attend the same McCormick’s picnics, two in a sea of faces turned towards the camera.
McCormick’s, like many other London companies and groups, often hosted employee picnics at Port Stanley on the shores of Lake Erie. Just 25 miles from London, the village had been drawing thousands to its beaches and magnificent hilltop park since at least the 1860s, described even in its early incarnation as “Canada’s Saratoga,” where “the air is always cool, and night delightful.” Despite a fairly constant population of fewer than 1,000 souls throughout the second half of the 19th century, Port Stanley boasted some five grand hotels, among them Fraser House, with a panoramic view of the lake. The hotel’s owner, William Fraser, was connected by marriage to Hollywood glamour, and the internationally renowned actress Annie Pixley made regular prolonged visits, contributing to the village’s cachet. A later advertisement for a competing hotel assured readers “if you are particular we want your patronage.”
Day trippers, though, along with company picnickers and school groups, made up the bulk of visitors to Port Stanley. One of the earliest large outings was made in 1859 by 400 school children from St. Thomas who were escorted on a day long picnic in honour of Queen Victoria’s birthday. Newspaper accounts made much of the outing, recording that the children departed at an early hour, each with a basket in hand, and serenaded by the music of the St. Thomas Brass Band. Such excursions would not have been possible without some reliable means of transportation, and for those traveling from St. Thomas, and from London further north, the London and Port Stanley Railway, built in 1856, served that purpose. One of the first railways in Ontario, the L&PS had been built to ease congestion on the plank road between St. Thomas and Port Stanley, and carried freight to and from the Lake Erie port, where cargo steamers loaded and unloaded shipments of coal, lumber and other goods. Responsibility for the railway changed hands several times over the years, and passenger service wasn’t always reliable, earning the trains a few nicknames – the Late and Poor Service, the Lost and Presumed Sunk – but by 1913 the City of London had become the owner of the line and converted it to electricity, improving its performance.
Electric trains, expansion of the village’s attractions and a concerted effort by Port Stanley’s Chamber of Commerce enticed people to visit “Canada’s Coney Island,” and the public came in droves, delivered by the L&PS coaches right to the foot of Invererie Heights – better known as Picnic Hill – where the visitors dispersed to stroll the boardwalk that boasted “every manner of booth,” or headed to the beachside pavilion to rent a bathing suit for a dip in the lake. For those inclined to a different sort of bathing, rows of benches lined the beach, inviting people to “take the sun bath cure,” and in the evening, lakeside dance pavilions opened their windows to let the strains of dance music echo over the water.
Our grandfather Bill and his family visited Port Stanley many times over the years, but the earliest photos are picnic shots like the one of Bill and his brothers dressed in their picnic best. On those days they’d have arrived at the foot of Picnic Hill with hundreds of others, carting picnic baskets and blankets to spread on the grass and forming long queues for the incline railway that would lift them the several hundred feet to the top.
There, as the Chamber’s pamphlet tells us, they’d find a “handsome, natural park … delightfully shaded by trees … with plenty of seats on the brow of the hill overlooking the lake and village, and swings and other entertainment for the youngsters. … In the evening, [the park] affords a picturesque view of the boardwalk with its many lights and promenading crowds.”
Bill and the picnicking crowd likely didn’t stay to watch the twinkle of lights in the evening. Following an afternoon of potato sack and three-legged races, bean bag toss competitions and tug-of-war, they’d have sat at the long rows of picnic tables spread with checkered cloths and eaten sandwiches and cold chicken and cakes and laughed over the day’s antics. Someone from the company probably made a speech, and a few employees might have been singled out for special mention – a recent marriage, a new baby – and the day would come to an end. The jostle of the coach on the way back to London surely lulled many to sleep, and stirred dreams of next year’s company trip, and another outing to Port Stanley’s Picnic Hill.
A postscript here that we’ll be in London, visiting The Book Store at Western, on November 17th, 2 to 4 p.m. Please join us!
When you sit down to write a book like The Cowkeeper’s Wish that spans generations and decades, it’s inevitable that some details and characters will have to go by the wayside. As difficult as that culling is for those of us who love a big story, and as tantalizing the detail or interesting the character being omitted, in the end the edit usually makes the narrative tighter and tidier and more enjoyable for the reader. One of the characters left out of our story was our great grandfather’s sister, Kate Sarah Deverill. It’s never nice to exclude a sister, so this post is meant to remedy that.
The third child of William Henry Deverill and Mary Margaret Taylor, Kate was born in Uxbridge on February 3rd, 1872. Her sister Ada was three years older, and her brother Harry, our great grandfather, two. All three children had been baptized in the so-called non-conformist (meaning not Church of England) Providence Chapel, the same church where their parents had wed in 1867. How William Henry and Mary Margaret came to meet is an interesting tale, full of speculation, but for now suffice to say that William was in the grocer’s trade, and Mary, daughter of the resourceful Mary Anna Bell-Taylor, had inherited her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit and ran a toy shop.
William grew up in Uxbridge, a small community 25 kilometres from the centre of London, located on the main road between that city and Oxford. Throughout the 18th century, travel along the route was steady with some 40 stage coaches a day stopping to change horses and rest passengers, and dozens of inns, alehouses and breweries did a brisk trade. Because of the traffic, the area was rife with highwaymen, and several were said to have lived openly in Uxbridge, lending the village a reputation for dishonesty. Apart from the coaching trade, an agricultural industry existed in Uxbridge, centred on corn and flour, market gardens and greenhouses. In the 1830s, brick-earth, a kind of loam that only needs baking to form usable building bricks, was uncovered nearby, and became a major source of local employment. When the main railway line from London was laid through another community and Uxbridge received only a branch line, its industries quickly declined, and throughout much of the 19th century, when our William Deverill lived there, first as a lad, then as a young husband and father, Uxbridge remained a sleepy market town.
Kate lived there with her parents and siblings until she was six or seven years old, old enough to be aware of the most likely reason for the family’s move, her father’s bankruptcy. A notice in the London Gazette recorded William’s misfortune, directing that “at three o’clock in the afternoon precisely” on January 20, 1876, he appear at the offices of Messers. Woodbridge and Sons, Solicitors, for a meeting with his creditors. His days as a grocer weren’t over, but he’d no longer be a business owner, and by 1878 he’d moved his young family to Greenwich, settling near a snarl of railway lines and close to his wife’s relatives.
There are no known photographs of Kate, either as a child or an adult, so we don’t know if she shared her brother Harry’s dark eyes or sister Ada’s round smile.
Presumably she learned sewing skills from her dressmaker mother, since on the 1891 census she and her sister Ada, then 19 and 22, still lived at home sewing shirts for a living. At some point between 1891 and 1897 Kate moved out on her own, and from this point on, her story, like that of so many women, meshes with that of the men in her life, and Kate fades into the background. We do know that she took a flat on the north side of the Thames in the Covent Garden area near Buckingham Palace. Despite its proximity to the royal palace, the inhabitants, according to Charles Booth’s London poverty maps and notebooks, were “mixed. Some poor living … but not rough.” Part of a street improvement plan implemented in 1880, Kate’s address, 7D Block, Bedfordbury, was most likely the Peabody Buildings, tenement structures with “luxury” features like outdoor recreation space and laundry facilities, although the flats did not have running water. Presumably, these were happy days for Kate, given the presence at 10B Block of a young man with the unusual name of Frederick Gaughan Burnett. If we were to try to characterize Fred based on the few details we know about him, it would be tempting to imagine him as a carefree charmer with an easy laugh, happily fabricating the facts of his past. Certainly he is an enigma for us, more than a century on, trying to make sense of the few perplexing clues left behind. On one record, his father was called Frederick, an Indian Commissioner; on another, William, a knight; on a third, Sir William Gaugan Burnett, I.C.S. (either Indian or Imperial Civil Service). Yet Fred himself worked as a railway porter, and later a commercial salesman, neither job plausible for the only son of a man with a knighthood. These oddities didn’t matter to Kate, or perhaps she knew the true story we’ve been unable to find. Whatever the case, she married Fred in July, 1897, a few weeks after the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The register shared a few more surprises: the wedding occurred at St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square, a grand and historic Church of England place of worship, though Kate had been baptized as a Methodist, and Fred’s “Rank or Profession” was reported as Soldier, R.H.A., or Royal Horse Artillery.
It’s possible that all this is fact. Perhaps the initial recording of Fred’s father as another Frederick instead of William was a clerk’s error; perhaps Fred’s father had indeed been knighted for his service to the crown as a member of the civil service in India, and any record of him has simply not survived. Perhaps Fred was the illegitimate son of this knighted man, which would explain the difference in their stations – the father a person of some means and accomplishment, the son carting other people’s luggage for a living, and taking in boarders to help pay the rent. It’s even conceivable that Fred was indeed a soldier in the Royal Horse Artillery, and that as a very young man he’d worn the crisp blue uniform with its rows and rows of gold braid adorning the chest and cuffs, although any accounts to prove this remain elusive, as do any records at all of Fred before he married Kate.
So Fred is one of those frustrating and fascinating genealogical brick walls, although once his story joins Kate’s, it is not so obscure, but no less interesting. The couple settled at first in the Waldeck Buildings on Windmill Street in Lambeth, a “superior, improved dwelling” where the flats boasted their own sink with running water and “plenty of shelves and good cupboards.” The buildings were situated close by Waterloo Station, a likely place of employment for Fred given his work as a railway porter. Waterloo had become quite ramshackle, with platforms added willy nilly since its opening in 1848, and by the time Fred worked there it was considered the most perplexing station in the city, and was the butt of jokes and music hall gags.
In addition to being a snaggle of disorganization, Waterloo also had a spur line to the dedicated station of the London Necropolis Company, which ran funeral trains daily to Brookwood Cemetery. These trains carried not only the coffins of the dead, but the mourning parties as well. Different classes were available on the trains for both the living and the dead, so an upper class corpse did not have to travel with a poor man’s corpse, or put up with his relatives.
The Waldeck Buildings where Kate and Fred lived was chock full of police constables, the lowest rank on the force, and who were paid a relatively low wage. Why so many police in one place? One explanation may be the floating police station constructed in 1900 at the Waterloo Pier, home to the Thames River Division of the Metropolitan Police Force. The River Police, as they were known, had a long history of patrolling the Thames, and in fact had existed well before London’s Metropolitan force was formed, and with which they’d amalgamated. Once, smugglers and cargo thieves had been the division’s main focus. Now, at the end of the 19th century, their floating station was as well known for its pots of geraniums outside as it was for missions of recovery. The Waterloo Bridge where the division floated was the most popular spot on the Thames for suicides, and during patrol while the men watched for cargo thieves they scanned the water for bodies too.
Living amongst so many police officers meant Kate and Fred surely knew several personally, and it may be why, in 1911, having moved back north of the Thames to St. Pancras in the area of Gray’s Inn, they took in Arthur Steggals as a boarder. Arthur was a member of Central Investigations Division of the London Metropolitan Police, described as having brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. He’d joined the force in 1900, and had progressed through the ranks, becoming a detective with some experience, and a sergeant. Searches of newspapers and police court records return Arthur’s name repeatedly, and give us a flavour of the kind of work an Edwardian-era policeman did, and some insight into Arthur’s character. An article from 1908 recounts the arrest of a man who stole several pairs of boots, including Arthur’s, from the police station. Encountering the man on the street, Arthur recognized his own boots, and took the fellow into custody. At his court hearing it was reported that the man was a workhouse inmate but that he sometimes worked at the police station doing odd jobs. In the past Arthur had helped him out by giving him a jacket and waistcoat. The magistrate was lenient by Edwardian standards, and told the accused he would not send him to prison this time, but placed him under probation for a month. Another newspaper item tells a rougher story, of Arthur and a second officer in a “desperate fight” with two men caught burgling a warehouse. One of the perpetrators escaped, and the other was arrested, but not before injuring Arthur and his fellow officer so badly that they were unable to appear in court to testify.
What Kate and Fred thought of these kinds of stories, if Arthur shared them, is unknown. Nor is it apparent the circumstances that led to the break-up of Fred and Kate’s marriage, but some time after the 1911 census, when the three were recorded as living together – man, wife and boarder – Fred left the flat in St. Pancras, and in 1914, without a divorce from Kate, married Kathleen (Queenie) Bell from Leicester, at St. Stephen’s, Putney, south of the Thames. Their daughter was born in 1918.
At what point in this tale did Kate and Arthur progress from landlady and boarder to something more? Arthur’s 1915 pension record when he retired from the force at age 36 shows that he was single, and living at an address in West Kilburn. Of Kate there is no trace until, disregarding the law and chancing a charge of bigamy but perhaps encouraged by word of Fred and Queenie’s bigamist union, she and Arthur married in 1920 at Kingston, Surrey. Unlike Fred, Kate remained childless, but she and Arthur lived close by Kate’s sisters and their families, sharing happy, sad and ordinary days. Arthur died first, likely of heart or kidney problems, just before Christmas, 1940 at the age of 64, and Kate four years after, when she was 72. But for the curiosity of searchers like us, coming to the story decades later, Kate’s existence might have passed into obscurity, gone and forgotten. And while there is so much we do not and cannot know about this other Deverill sister, at least part of her story is now resurrected.
In 1884, Cassell’s Household Guide to Every Department of Practical Life: Being a Complete Encyclopaedia of Domestic and Social Economy — whew! — purported to share everything the average housewife should know to run an efficient household. At 396 pages, it contained articles about how to make paper chains for Christmas decoration, how to pickle lemons and how to deal with the dreaded influenza, the cause of which, Cassell’s noted, “has been attributed to a deficiency of ozone in the atmosphere, or to an alteration in the electrical conditions of the earth.” There was a whole section dedicated to that timeless and contentious topic “The Rearing and Management of Children,” and another called “Odds and Ends,” which offered advice on cleaning “the fur” from the insides of bottles, and also included “Facts Worth Knowing about Glue.” According to Cassell’s, glue should be purchased when the weather is hot, for glues of inferior quality would then reveal themselves by their soft texture. “Glue that is not perfectly hard,” the guide stated, “… is of inferior quality, and should be rejected, for it does not hold so well, and is liable to become putrid.”
Cassell’s was a treasure trove of information for the housewife of the Victorian period and beyond. Originally published in 1869 in four volumes, it was reprinted in 1884 and again in 1911, by which time it had grown to six impressive volumes, included illustrations and 22 coloured plates, and had pared its name down to Cassell’s Household Guide: A Complete Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy.
Of course the advice dispensed changed with the times. The 1869 edition contained five mentions of crinolines (that voluminous underskirt of wires and starched netting), warning about “severe burns, such as arise from the clothes taking fire” — so-called “crinoline accidents” — and “Housemaid’s Knee,” a condition aggravated by kneeling on the crinoline’s wires. By the time of the release of the 1884 version of the guide, crinolines had dropped out of style, and Cassell’s included just one reference to the fashion craze.
But who was the knowledgeable Cassell, expounding with equal authority on ladies’ garments, the treatment of gall stones, and how to make Meg Dods’ stuffing (“the liver parboiled and chopped, if in a sound state”)?
John Cassell was born in 1817 at the The Ring O’ Bells pub, Manchester, where his father was the landlord. What opportunity he had for schooling came to an end when his father was seriously injured in a fall and could no longer work, and a few years later, died. In his teenage years John worked at first in a textile factory, and then later, showing some skill and promise, was indentured as a carpenter’s apprentice. But John was motivated beyond merely learning a trade. The Fireside Annual, published in 1882, tells us that even as a young man, John was “determined to educate himself, to break down the trammels of class ignorance, first of all in his own case, and, that once accomplished, to assist with all the energy he possessed, his brother workmen to do the same.” After putting in a hard day’s work, evening studies were difficult, but eventually he acquired “an extensive acquaintance with English literature, great general information, and a fair mastery of the French language.” But what stood him in greatest stead was what he learned from his fellow workers in the carpenter’s shop, “for here he gained an insight into … the struggles, privations, and miseries, as well as the hopes and ambitions of the working classes; and this knowledge was carefully stored up until he should, at a future time, see some way of firing their minds and ameliorating their condition.”
Eager for new ideas and yearning for a worthy cause, he chanced to hear Joseph Livesey, leader of a temperance group that advocated abstinence from the evils of drink, and he was drawn to the movement. Livesey was equally impressed by Cassell, recalling their first encounter in a Manchester lecture room. “I remember quite well … his standing on the right, just below or on the steps of the platform, in his working attire, with a fustian jacket and an apron on — a young man of eighteen, in the honestest and best of uniforms — his industrial regimentals.”
John put all his energies toward the cause of temperance, but he was practical too, and understood that except for the privileged few, lecturing didn’t put food on the table or pay the rent. Looking both to find work as a carpenter and to further spread the word of the temperance mission, John set his sights on London, and like his contemporaries, our own Benjamin and Margaret Jones, walked the length of the country to arrive in the city in October, 1836. Within a few days he’d found his way to the New Jerusalem Schoolroom in Westminster Bridge Road and delivered his first public speech on temperance, appearing to an observer as “a gaunt stripling, poorly clad, and travel-stained; plain, straightforward in speech, but broad in provincialism.” He came to be noticed by John Meredith, the founder of the London Temperance Mission, a man considered “the Napoleon of the temperance warfare,” and whose goal it was to “cover the whole country with temperance influence.” Meredith, though, did not have the gift of oration, and had difficulty delivering his message attractively, but in Cassell he had found an eloquent speaker — young, enthusiastic and energetic. Cassell became a paid temperance agent, trudging from town to town, shaking a rattle to draw attention and then hopping onto a crate to call out against the “vices that sat like skeletons beside half the hearths in England.” His zeal drew many converts as well as sneers and derision, but in Lincolnshire it attracted a woman named Mary Abbott, and their marriage signalled the end of Cassell’s days as a circuit lecturer. Cassell remained a strong advocate for the temperance movement, though, and with money Mary had inherited from her father, the couple settled in northwest London, and John began a tea and coffee business, partly because he recognized an untapped market, and partly for philanthropic reasons. As a penniless youth and later as a visitor to poor homes and villages, Cassell knew that tea and coffee — obvious temperance drinks — were expensive and not readily available, and that the much cheaper beer and gin filled the poor man’s mug. Selling cheap tea and coffee to the masses would not only promote sobriety but would be a good business.
He was right, and so successful that “Cassell’s shilling coffee” became a household staple, and John found himself with an excess of money and leisure time. He bought a used printing press and began to dabble in publishing, printing temperance tracts and pamphlets, and experimenting with illustrated covers, which he noticed sold better than those without. His first publication was a little magazine called the Teetotal Times, and he followed that with an attempt at a weekly paper called The Standard of Freedom which advocated for freedom in religion, and reflected Cassell’s “courageous and independent mind.” But he was most successful printing cheap educational books, and a newspaper that he called The Working Man’s Friend, which “did not patronize, give itself airs; nor did it play down to the lowest intelligence. It was full of sympathy and understanding of the working man’s life.”
Cassell’s expanded, moving premises and growing its list of publications geared towards and affordable for the working man. In 1852 the company published a 26-volume work entitled Cassell’s Library, with a variety of authors contributing pieces like the “Account of the Steam Engine,” and a “Natural History of Man.” It sold cheaply, meeting its intended audience, and was followed immediately by the Popular Educator, the “crown and culmination of John Cassell’s experience and judgment of the needs of those to whom general education had been denied.” Weekly issues included lessons in botany, geography, geometry and French, as well as ancient history, architecture and arithmetic. It was “a school, an academy, and a university all in one… [arousing] real wonder in the minds of the reviewers who wrote about it.” Its editor, Professor Robert Wallace of Glasgow University, wrote of the weekly, “It cannot be but pleasing for us to reflect that each successive week nearly 100,000 families are undergoing a course of useful instruction by means of this periodical.” Popular Educator had quickly become a national institution, and classes formed to expand on the lessons introduced in the publication.
But what, then, of Cassell’s Household Guide? By the time it was published in 1869, replete with the illustrations and diagrams that John Cassell had understood were so important to the working-class appeal of his publications, the man himself was dead. His early demise in 1865 at the age of 48 was attributed by some to “his closely continued application to … business, and the anxiety it entailed,” but in fact he’d succumbed to “an internal tumour,” the effects of which had been noted for many months in his loss of strength and general ill health. His name was “a veritable household word” by then, and Cassell’s itself soldiered on in his absence, continuing in the tradition he had begun, and building “an Empire of literature in the hearts and homes of the working man.”
Cassell’s Household Guide, Cassell, Petter and Galpin, London, 1869.
The Fireside Annual, Home Words Publishing Office, 1882.
The Story of the House of Cassell, Cassell & Co. Ltd., London, 1922.
The History of the Temperance Movement in Great Britain and Ireland, by Samuel Couling. William Tweedie Co., London, 1862.
“Death of Mr. John Cassell,” Carlisle Journal, 4 April, 1865.
Close your eyes and imagine that it’s 10 o’clock on a Saturday evening in London, Ontario. The year is 1928. This is our grandmother Doris Deverill’s world. She is 18, and is somewhere in the same city, perhaps, like you, sitting in a flocked, over-stuffed armchair with her feet curled beneath her.
In your room, the heavy drapes are drawn and a small lamp with a thin silk shade is colouring the room a dusky orange. You’ve just turned the knob on the front of the polished wooden radio set that has pride of place on the floor of your small living room, and it hums and then crackles to life. Strains of a theme song fill the space – This is My Lucky Day – and it’s not lost on you that the song has been chosen with a purpose; first, the word ‘lucky’ provides a little indirect advertising for the show’s sponsor, Lucky Strike Cigarettes, as well as a link to the show’s title, The Lucky Strike Radio Hour, and second, it’s a popular song, having been part of a string of Broadway revues called the George White Scandals, similar to the Ziegfeld Follies.
Immediately following the last notes of the song the voice of the unnamed announcer comes on, his speech clipped and crisp and slightly nasal. “And so begins this hour of dance music, presented for your pleasure by the manufacturers of Lucky Strike Cigarettes. The Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra will be heard in the tunes that made Broadway, Broadway.”
And on cue, the Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra’s bandleader, Benjamin Albert Rolfe, the so-called Boy Trumpet Wonder, introduces the first numbers of the evening, “a real dancing combination.” One of the songs – Bambalina – he calls an “old friend.”
You smile and listen as Rolfe and his orchestra play. His concept of dance music during this time of the late 1920s was that it should “throb and laugh with happiness; it should have the rhythm of a rubber ball, bouncing back, only to fall again, going on and on.” Those words were a fair description of what Rolfe himself had been doing for his entire career up to this point. Raised in Brasher Falls, New York, he’d played piccolo and cornet in his father’s band, performing throughout the eastern United States and Europe. After high school he picked up work as a musical clown in a traveling circus, then joined the Majestic Theatre Orchestra before finally heading the brass instruments department at the Utica Conservatory of Music. But show business was in his blood, and after a run as a bandleader and only marginal success as a vaudeville producer he eventually turned his efforts to movies, forming a production company and turning out more than 50 silent films.
Financial difficulties forced Rolfe out of that business and he took up his trumpet again and began performing as a solo artist. Eventually, inspired by the likes of Paul Whiteman and his “symphonic jazz”, Rolfe put together his own dance orchestra, and found a measure of success on the airwaves as master of ceremonies for the Lucky Strike Dance Hour.
The last strains of Bambalina fade, and Rolfe introduces another number, and after that, a waltz from the operetta The Merry Widow. TheMerry Widow Waltz is already a “famous classic”, but in 1934 French actor and cabaret performer Maurice Chevalier will lend his charm to the film version of the operetta, and an Academy Award win for Best Art Direction will make the music just that much more popular. But for now, Rolfe’s Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra is doing justice to the notes, and you in your comfortable chair sway ever so slightly, dreaming up the feel of a hand at your back, leading you through the imaginary steps.
Then the music ends, and without a pause the never-named announcer brings listeners back to the real world, and makes the requisite pitch for the show’s sponsor. Tonight, the script-writers lead with Douglas Fairbanks, a founding member of the fledgling Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But you have never heard of an Oscar. The first of those diminutive gold statues won’t be handed out by the Academy for another year, although when they are, it will be Fairbanks hosting the show and shaking hands with his peers when they take their bows. Despite his many and varied contributions to the world of film (he helped start the School of Cinematic Arts in California, and was one of the founders of the United Artists studio), Fairbanks would never win an Oscar himself.
The radio announcer reads his text: “Douglas Fairbanks, America’s motion picture favourite, will soon appear in his new production of ‘The Iron Mask.’ This is a sequel to ‘The Three Musketeers’ with Mr. Fairbanks again playing the part of D’Artagnan.
The characters however are more romantic and adventurous and Mr. Fairbanks considers the picture as a whole to be faster moving than any story he has ever brought to the screen. The manufacturers of Lucky Strikes have requested me to read what Douglas Fairbanks has to say regarding the Lucky Strike Cigarette. Mr. Fairbanks says – ‘I get more kick from the Lucky Strike flavour than from any other cigarette. They are easier on my throat and wind. That’s why I smoke nothing but Luckies. Toasting really means a lot to me. My own experience has proven that toasting not only takes out the bad things but doubles the flavour.’”
You sigh and shift position. The hour grows late, and you want less talk and more music, and don’t care if Mr. Fairbanks smokes Luckies or Camels or even British Consols, which is unlikely, since they are a Canadian brand manufactured in Montreal, and Mr. Fairbanks, of course, is a Hollywood star.
Bandleader Rolfe announces the next couple of numbers, Crazy Rhythm, “a musical impediment of speech,” and Oh Evelyn, Stop Your Devilin, a song from the musical comedy Pom-Pom, and Mitzi’s favourite, according to Rolfe. He doesn’t share more details than that, but you know that Pom-Pom was released 12 years ago in 1916, and starred the “tiny prima donna from Hungary” Mitzi Hajos, whose name, the New York Times advised most helpfully, is pronounced “High-yuss.”
Despite the aids to pronunciation, the “golden haired darling” eventually became convinced that her Hungarian surname would never “roll readily from the American tongue,” and she legally dropped Hajos to become plain Mitzi. But as the Reading Times of Pennsylvania declared, “plain…she could never be, as witness her dressed as a boy in Pom-Pom.”
Two more songs follow, and then the announcer speaks again, this time sharing the endorsement of Lucky Strike cigarettes by yet another famous person, the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. The script goes like this: “A short time ago the world was thrilled by the daring Amelia Earhart, the first woman ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean by airplane. Of Lucky Strike cigarettes Miss Earhart said ‘Lucky Strikes were the cigarettes carried on the Friendship when she crossed the Atlantic. We bought a carton in Newfoundland before we took off, because Luckies are best. On a long hard grind of this kind they were real life-savers, and were smoked continuously from Trepassey to Wales. I think nothing else helped so much to lessen the strain for all of us.'” You think about that, and picture the intrepid Miss Earhart earnestly puffing her way through her share of the carton of Luckies, clad in her aviator coveralls, leather cap with earflaps snugged beneath her chin, and wearing clumsy gloves to protect against the cold of the 20 hour flight. Presumably pilot Wilmer Stultz and flight mechanic Louis Gordon had found time to inhale the other two-thirds of the smokes despite fighting bad weather they’d thought had blown them off course, and almost running out of gas. Amelia drew the world’s attention with that trip, although by her own words she was “just baggage” and wouldn’t pilot her solo voyage across the Atlantic until 1932.
Mr. Rolfe is back at the microphone, introducing five more numbers that float across the airwaves. You are yawning now, but the music is lively and keeps you in your chair, enjoying the beat of the “optimistic little melody, Old Man Sunshine,” and then the even spunkier Tiger Rag. But by the time the theme song plays to signal the end of the show, your eyelids are drooping and your hand props your chin. The announcer bids his listeners good night, and makes one last plug for the show’s sponsor. “This closes the program of one hour’s dance music presented for your pleasure by the manufacturers of Lucky Strike Cigarettes. The tunes that made Broadway, Broadway. Thank you.” But you do not hear those last sentences. You’re asleep, your breath coming evenly, your head tilted back on the cushion of that over-stuffed chair.
Lucky Strike Radio Hour transcript
Thurlow O. Cannon, “B.A. Rolfe – From Brasher Falls to Broadway to Broadcasting,” in The Quarterly, St. Lawrence County Historical Association, January 1981.
Pom-Pom Coming to the Academy, Reading Times, 8 February 1917.
Our great grandparents, Harry and Mary Anne Deverill, moved out of the Borough to Lambeth around the time that Mary Anne’s sister Jennie and her husband Richard Vanson did the same. Richard and Jennie and their three girls lived just north of Harry and Mary Anne, in a block of artisans’ dwellings on Burdett Street off Westminster Bridge Road. You could follow the road west and travel across the Thames to a different world: the Houses of Parliament and the Clock Tower were there, with Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace just beyond. Like Harry and his brother Jack, who’d been in trade together, Richard disappeared from commercial directories around this time, so it seems he’d lost or given up his business as a boot repairer. But his new home in Burdett Chambers was very close to H & M Rayne, shoemakers to the theatrical crowd and, according to The Stage Year Book, “manufacturers and outfitters of every requisite for the stage.”
H & M Rayne opened for business in London in the mid-1880s, a collaboration between Henry Ryan and his wife Mary Clarke. Born in 1863 in Devonport, the son of an Irishman who’d joined the British Army, Henry lived for a time in India, then as a young man larked about the United States and France before returning to England. Mary was a Chelsea lass, and when she and Henry married, it was at the height of the Victorian fascination with all things theatrical. The advent of gas lighting, improved modes of transportation affordable to the average citizen, and a working class with a spare penny meant music halls flourished, packing all sorts of customers into venues such as the Alhambra in Leicester Square, or The Borough Music Hall on Union Street in Southwark. Henry and Mary saw an opportunity, and opened their doors at 115 Waterloo Road, selling “high-class stage boots and shoes” to music hall performers.
Henry was an astute businessman, and was surely well aware that anti-Irish sentiment was running high around this time, as the Irish nationalist Fenians had begun a “dynamite campaign,” targeting tube stations, the offices of Scotland Yard, and Westminster Abbey. Henry took an approach that would be copied by king and commoner decades later when England went to war against Germany, and changed his name from the Irish Ryan to Rayne, which he thought sounded French and would appeal to prospective customers. Presumably he also believed people would not frequent a shop co-owned by a woman, for although the ‘M’ in H & M Rayne was Mary, they prefaced the company name with Messrs, suggesting this was a partnership of men. They placed notices in publications like The Music Hall and Theatre Review, claiming to have received orders “from all parts of the world, the latest one coming from so distant a land as sunny Roumania.” They advertised in newspapers and trade journals touting their costumes and wigs, and exclusive products like their Manx perfume, and mona powder, “guaranteed to give the skin a velvety softness, and the velvety bloom of youth. Not too young, you know, but about eighteen.”
Before too long the stars of the music hall and theatrical world were H & M Rayne’s devoted customers, among them actresses like Gertie Millar, one of the most photographed women of her time, and Lillie Langtry, once mistress of the Prince of Wales. Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova bought Rayne’s dancing shoes, and the company featured her compliment in one of their advertisements: “Your shoes are beautiful.”
It’s possible our Richard Vanson worked for Rayne’s, hunched over a bench fixing shapely heels onto embroidered satin uppers, or attaching buttons to smooth leather shanks. But any record suggesting such a detail is long gone, and Richard died in 1911, just before the census that confirmed his niece Olive was employed at Rayne’s as an “apprentice theatrical costumer,” while his daughter Alice tried her hand there at “apprentice perruquier,” learning to create hairpieces and elaborate wigs, and, indirectly at least, receiving the accolade from renowned Scottish vaudevillian Harry Lauder that “the wigs are champion.”
Nineteen-eleven spelled the end for Mary Rayne too. She died on the 17th of February, an inmate of the Banstead Lunatic Asylum. Whether Mary had succumbed to the pressures of a successful business or there’d been other factors at play isn’t known, but in 1915, 52-year-old Henry followed her to the grave, passing the mantle of H & M Rayne to their son, Joseph. From humble beginnings, Mary and Henry’s company went on to earn three royal warrants, confirming that “Mdlle Adeline Genee, the world’s greatest dancer [was correct when she said] ‘The Boots and Shoes are Perfect.'”
The Stage Year Book, 1912
Music Hall Stars of the Nineties, George Le Roy. British Technical and General Press, 1952
Rayne Shoes for Stars, Michael Pick. ACC Art Books, 2015
A Manual of Shoemaking, William H. Dooley. Brown, Little & Co., 1912
Victoria and Albert Museum, The Story of Music Halls
Turtle Bunbury, The Irish Family Who Founded Rayne’s Shoes