Tracy and I visited Gananoque this past weekend, and participated in the 1000 Islands Writers Festival. If you ever have a chance to go to this beautiful part of Ontario, do! And even better if you can manage to make next year’s festival. The organizers go above and beyond to ensure it’s a wonderful event for readers and listeners alike, rich with music and literary delights. On Friday evening, each of the authors did a short reading. We were asked to choose passages that had to do with the festival’s theme of Life in the Shadows — focusing on the unknown, the unrecognized, the underappreciated. Since much of The Cowkeeper’s Wish is set in the slums of Victorian London, it wasn’t hard to follow the theme. I chose a passage about a woman named Alice Ayres, who stepped out of the shadows under the most tragic circumstances. Here’s an excerpt from the story:
In 1885, one April Friday at two in the morning, a fire broke out at an oil and colourman’s shop on Union Street. Such shops specialized in mixing paints, and when the gunpowder and casks of oil kept onsite quickly ignited, the fire spread rapidly. The shopman and his family, sleeping in the rooms above, were soon woken and trapped by the flames. Neighbours gathered in the street, blankets wrapped around their nightclothes. If Mary and her daughters were there, they’d have seen the horse-drawn fire engine arrive in short order, carrying firefighters with their Spartan helmets, axes holstered at their waists. But it was already too late to lean the ladders against the bricks – flames lashed out of the windows, and heat from the burning oil emanated from the building.
When a woman appeared in a third-storey window, neighbours called to her to jump, but she disappeared from view. The smoke curled in the crisp spring air, and the crowd grew thicker, faces lighted by the glow of the fire. And then the woman reappeared. She pushed a feather mattress through the window to the ground, and the crowd called again to her to jump, but instead she lifted a small, startled girl, about five years old, up to the window ledge and dropped her to the mattress below. She slipped away and returned to the window with another girl, this one smaller than the last, crying and clinging to her, refusing to be dropped. But the woman threw the child out and someone held up their arms and caught her. Once more she returned, with the smallest girl yet, and dropped her to the mattress.
The voices in the crowd were ragged now, screaming to the woman to save herself. They could see that she was losing strength and having trouble breathing. She tried to push herself from the window, but fell from the frame, and on the way down she struck her head on the shop sign below. She landed head-down, cracking her spine, and though she was rushed to hospital and did regain consciousness, she died soon after.
The woman’s name was Alice Ayres. She was sister-in-law to the oil and colourman who owned the shop, and nursemaid to the little girls she had released through the window one by one. Once the blaze was put out, the remains of Alice’s sister, the girls’ mother, were found inside, along with a son and the oil and colourman himself, holding a locked box of cash, terrified of losing everything he owned. The obvious horror of the family’s last moments affected the neighbourhood deeply, and captured the imagination of the larger population as well, fuelling a rumour that as Alice had lain in hospital, Queen Victoria had sent a lady-in-waiting to inquire about her worsening condition.
The event was a tragedy, but also appealed to the Victorian love of melodrama and sentiment. Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper called Alice Ayres “a humble heroine,” and asserted that “Such a woman, although only a poor domestic, deserves to be placed among the small but noble army of martyrs to duty.” Mourners flocked to the memorial service at St. Saviour’s, so many that there was not even standing room left in the church. Those in the back strained to hear the words of the minister, who preached a sermon about heroism. Nearly a thousand coins were raised, and it was said that the money would go toward a memorial window for Alice Ayres when the church was restored to its original splendour. Overnight, she had gone from anonymity to working-class heroine, and in the years to come, White Cross Street, running parallel to Red Cross Street, would be renamed Ayres in her honour. She’d undergone a near canonization, with gilded poems and stories written about her selfless duty and devotion. To the growing number of social reformers, Alice Ayres was an irresistible example of what every woman of the lower class should strive to be: hard-working, loyal and self-sacrificing.
I first came upon John Errington, Inspector of Nuisances, while researching our cowkeeper ancestor, periodically charged with diluting milk and keeping his cows in a filthy state. It was Errington’s job to sniff out unsanitary conditions in one of the poorest parts of Victorian London, so he was a busy man. When he discovered rancid cherries and rotten mackerel being sold in the streets, he delivered the foul evidence to the Medical Officer of Health. Together these men were part of a team looking out for the community’s welfare in a time when the spread of disease wasn’t fully understood, and dirt and grime were abundant. More than once, the “intolerable effluvium” Errington investigated emanated from bodies left unburied. Poverty was frequently at the core of his work.
In June 1876, he deemed a block of houses in Glasshouse Yard, Gravel Lane, unfit for human habitation. Filth alone was enough to condemn them for “danger of fever,” but they looked structurally unsafe, too, so Errington called upon surveyor Thomas Greenstreet, who likewise condemned the houses. Bits of roof had come away; shutters, flooring and banisters had been torn out for firewood. The tenants were mostly poor Irish families, and though the property owner, the South Eastern Railway Company, had evicted them, they stayed, having nowhere else to go. The company had purchased dilapidated housing in order to knock it down and expand a railway line, but not all of the property had been required, and these were the places left over, some of them missing doors and windows.
In July, one of the houses fell. Fortunately, no one was inside, but the Medical Officer of Health, Robert Bianchi, warned that the other houses were now even more precarious, and might “tumble down at any hour.” He urged “immediate ejectment of the tenants on humanitarian grounds.” Greenstreet recommended that, until the buildings were demolished, a hoarding be erected around the perimeter.
By August, though, the houses remained, and with no barrier. A widow named Julia Hunter was at home in another of the illegally inhabited dwellings when she heard a huge crack and saw the walls of the house next to the fallen one give way. The walls fell outwards in pieces, and the roof crashed down. It was a startling sight, but not shocking, for Julia had expected it, and had warned her children not to play near those houses. At least, once again, no one had been inside. Or so it was thought.
Julia’s son told a friend about the house that fell down, and he came to see the destruction. He was picking through the rubble when he spotted a tiny pair of shoes sticking up, toes to the sky. The deceased was John David Evans, two-year-old son of a dairyman living nearby. The boy was taken to the infirmary, but “life had ceased to exist for several hours.” The doctor noted John’s body was covered with bruises, his jaw had been forced in, and his right eye protruded. “Death ensued from suffocation.”
One article claims that, after the tragic collapse, “a number of gentlemen interested in the case proceeded to the Glasshouse-yard … for the purpose of viewing the scene of the disaster. A number of families were found huddled together, and the scanty furniture and bedding were packed up and deposited for hasty removal in the yard.”
By the time of the inquest a week later, four more of the rickety houses had already been pulled down. But there were plenty of similar dwellings in the vicinity, so the tavern where the inquest was held was “crowded to excess … the case having created great interest in the neighbourhood.” Errington testified as to the homes’ squalor, and the danger of disease, and Greenstreet noted that “a heavy gust of wind would have blown them down.” The incredulous coroner asked Julia Hunter, “Why did you remain?” and she answered, “It was impossible for us to get any other place to dwell in. One of our neighbours, a decent woman, has been trying her hardest to get a place, but can’t do it, because the police have given us all such a bad name, because we are Irish.”
The coroner deemed the death accidental in the end, and said that even if there had been criminal negligence, no verdict of manslaughter could be made against corporate bodies like the Board of Works and the railway company. But he added a rider: “the Metropolitan Board of Works should have taken immediate steps towards securing the house that fell upon receipt of the notice … from the surveyor, Mr. Greenstreet.”
But a year later, some of the buildings remained standing, unsecured. And elsewhere in the neighbourhood, the same problems prevailed. Just a few months after John Evans’ death, the tireless Inspector Errington implored the Magistrate to remember the little boy and the tumbling houses in Glasshouse Yard: another 16, also owned by the railway, were teetering in Ewer Street, fully inhabited, emptied of woodwork, and open, in places, to the sky.
“Law and Police – Southwark.” South London Chronicle, 17 June, 1876.
“Items of General News.” The Western Morning News, 17 August, 1876.
“Shocking Case.” Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 24 August, 1876.
“Fatal Fall of a House.” South London Chronicle, 26 August, 1876.
“Fatal Fall of a House.” Reynolds’s Newspaper, 26 August, 1876.
“Fall of a House in Southwark.” Salisbury Times, 19 August, 1876.
“Dilapidated Houses in Ewer-street, Southwark.” South London Chronicle, 11 November, 1876.
Though our book is subtitled “a genealogical journey,” it isn’t filling in the family tree that excites me most. It’s the history — and the mystery! — that inspire me above all, and I suspect many genealogy enthusiasts are the same. Searching out the family story opens windows into the past, through which all sorts of other stories appear. I can easily disappear down rabbit holes researching people totally unrelated to me, but using all the same tools I’d use to find my ancestors.
Take, for instance, two “terrors of the Borough” I came across while hunting through the British Newspaper Archive for mentions of Red Cross Street, now Redcross Way, and the Southwark family home for decades. In 1891, our great grandmother, 18-year-old Mary Anne Evans, was living there with her aunt, since her father had died and her mother had disappeared into the local workhouse. Handsome young Harry Deverill, 21 that census year, had moved into the street, too, and was working as a grocer. Soon their romance blossomed, and they were married at St Saviour’s Church (now Southwark Cathedral) in 1895. Given the timing, and the fact that Mary Anne had grown up in the street, it seems certain that they would have known of the terrors, Annie Bennett and John “Caster” Cannon. Caster — sometimes Coster and Costy — lived in the Mowbray Buildings, rough tenement housing where Mary Anne’s troubled sister Ellen also lived after her marriage fell apart and she began her downward spiral.
Throughout the 1890s, articles about Caster Cannon pop up in the newspaper archive. He was a “sweep and pugilist” about the same age as Harry, and had a dangerous reputation in the neighbourhood, less for pummelling other boxers than for pummelling his neighbours. In 1891 he and a fellow fighter were caught up in the death of a betting agent; and in 1895, he and another man living in the Mowbray Buildings were charged with striking a man in the head with sticks. The man headed up a rival gang, and his thugs and Caster’s thugs — thieves and bullies of the Borough — were engaged in an ongoing feud. Caster was “quite at home in the dock,” the press reported, “[and] conducted his case with great ability.”
The following August, the Illustrated Police News ran a piece titled “Oh, What a Surprise!” and revealed that Caster had been charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting women. He’d appeared frequently before the court for violent assaults, the paper claimed, and was “notorious as one of the most dangerous characters in the Borough.” A crowd of locals gathered outside the courthouse, anxious to hear the outcome of the charges, but they were not allowed in.
It seems Caster had been causing quite a stir in the street a few nights earlier, using “the vilest language possible and abusing his neighbours.” Police were called in by nine different people, mostly women, who alleged that Caster had assaulted them. One woman said he’d threatened to kill her, and struck her with a poker; another said he’d thrown a knife at her and threatened to kill her baby; a third said he’d spat in her face and thrown a flower pot at her. But each time a constable answered the call for help, Caster dashed inside and bolted his door. Finally, when a trio of constables came for him, he was apprehended.
After hearing the constable and the women testify, Caster claimed, “It’s all a pack of lies. These women want to put me away from my wife. I can’t be such a bad man, for I’ve got five little children and another one expected. I wish your worship would hear what my wife has to say.” But when his wife Mary Ann was called in, the magistrate asked her if she had recently come to him for a warrant against her husband, and she answered “Yes, sir. A week ago.” The charge of assaulting his wife was added to the other charges, and “the prisoner, who seemed dumbfounded by this turn of affairs, was then removed.”
A week later, another Borough brawl erupted in Caster’s absence, and this time Annie Bennett was charged with disorderly conduct and using obscene language. Annie was a 27-year-old laundress who lived in Redcross Court, one of the dank little alleys that snaked off Red Cross Street. A constable had spotted her fighting with another woman, and though he separated them, Annie “would not go away when requested, and used disgusting language.” She said she’d “have the liver out of the other woman because she had helped to get Caster Cannon two months.” She was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour, but it was not the first or last time she’d appear before the magistrate.
It didn’t take long for Caster to find trouble again once he’d done his time. In November, “John Cannon, who is described as a chimney sweep, but who is a well-known pugilist,” was charged with assaulting a fish curer named Ephraim Goodwin. It was another rivalry situation, and after a series of altercations between the two, Caster had appeared at Goodwin’s bedside one night, and punched him in the head as he lay sleeping. When the man woke, Caster punched him again “and then tried to ‘gnaw’ him.” Caster asked for leniency, since he had a wife and six children and was in poor health. The magistrate fined him £3, or one month’s time.
Reading on in the archive, it’s hard to muster sympathy for Caster Cannon. In early July of 1897, he approached the same magistrate, “a nervous individual seeking the protection of the court.” He claimed a gang of men had come into his lodgings in the middle of the night and threatened his life. The magistrate seemed amused by the “evident anxiety of the burly applicant,” but a week later, according to the Illustrated Police News in a piece headed “The Terror of the Borough,” Caster had indeed been beaten, and sat in court with his head “a mass of bandages.”
There were in all some six or seven charges and counter charges, to which the magistrate gave a very patient hearing, occupying nearly two hours. … Mary Shaw, wife of a costermonger, was the first complainant against Cannon. She alleged that Mike Smith, an ex-convict in her husband’s employment, refused to yield up to Cannon a shilling out of the day’s takings belonging to her husband, whereupon Cannon knocked him senseless with a blow in the stomach. The witness remonstrated, and Cannon struck her in the face, and threw a can of beer over her. Subsequently he emptied a quantity of filth over her barrow-load of strawberries. … Cannon was accustomed to demand money and beer of all comers. People in Redcross Court had put up with it, under fear of him, for years past. But when he moved to Queen’s Court, a few weeks ago, he tried the ‘same game’ with less success. She was aware that a party was made up to break into Cannon’s house, which was next door to hers, and to drag him out for punishment, but she was not the organiser of the party, nor did they rendezvous at her house. It was not true that her grievance against Cannon was that he objected to her boiling whelks in the copper, which belonged jointly to the two houses. Mike Smith corroborated Mrs. Shaw’s story, and charged Cannon with assaulting him, simply because he would not pay toll to the ‘bully of the court.’ … [He] was not one of the party who stormed Cannon’s abode at three o’clock in the morning, dragged him out of bed, and beat him black and blue, but he was glad to hear what had happened. … Passing from the dock to the witness-box Cannon gave his version of what had happened to him, and bitterly complained that a ‘mob’ of fifteen or twenty men broke down his door, smashed his furniture, beat him with sticks and pieces of iron while he was in his shirt, and would have killed him ‘like a rat’ but for the arrival of the police. … After further evidence, the magistrate said it was high time these disgraceful fights were put an end to, and sentenced Cannon and Selby, both of whom had been frequently convicted, to four months’ hard labour, and Smith to one month. On leaving the court, Selby rushed savagely at Cannon, and was narrowly prevented from again assaulting him.
From then on, mentions of Caster as “the terror of the borough” begin to dwindle. But his defender, the laundress Annie Bennett, earned the same nickname for her ongoing wild behaviour. She was a small woman with sharp features and a quick tongue, her arms “freely tattooed” with the names of various lovers — a jealous woman once tried to scrape off one of those names with broken glass, but Annie fought back with fervour. In 1899, when she was charged with being drunk and disorderly, she was sentenced to a year in an inebriates’ home in Bristol. She called the constables liars who wouldn’t let anyone off, and let loose a stream of “violent language” as she was taken from court. One article said she was a habitual drunkard who had had many similar convictions, and had “frequently distinguished herself in the many skirmishes and battles with which the history of Redcross Court is studded.”
But I always wonder about the stories behind these stories, and the clues that suggest different tellings, different views of these old slums of Victorian London and the people who lived there. It was home to them, after all, and the people who often wrote about the slums were outsiders, with an outsider’s vantage point (just like me, now). Redcross Court, where Annie Bennett lived, “possessed the most undesirable reputation as any slum in London,” but after eight months of her sentence, Annie escaped the inebriates’ home and made her way straight back there. She was caught, and sentenced to three months in prison, and when that was over, she returned to the Borough immediately, only to be caught up in a brawl that landed her in front of the magistrate. He asked her why she’d escaped in the first place, only to cause herself more trouble, and she answered that she’d heard Redcross Court — dilapidated and overcrowded — was going to be torn down by London County Council, and she thought she would like to see it again before it was no more. The article mocks “the sentimental side” of “the lady in question,” and her wish to see “the last of her much-beloved slum.” But at the same time, her wish rings true, and makes me all the more curious about who she really was, and what her neighbourhood was like from an insider’s perspective.
“Borough Roughs.” South London Chronicle, 10 August, 1895
“Caster Cannon Again.” South London Chronicle, 5 October, 1895
“Oh, What a Surprise!” Illustrated Police News, 22 August, 1896
“Life in the Borough.” South London Chronicle, 29 August, 1896
“The Rival Champions.” Daily Telegraph & Courier (London),4 November, 1896
“‘Caster’ Cannon Again.” South London Chronicle,3 July, 1897
“The Terror of the Borough.” Illustrated Police News, 17 July, 1897
“‘Terror’ Goes to Bath.” South London Press, 3 June, 1899
Page 5. South London Chronicle, 14 July, 1900.
“Habitual Drunkard’s Escape.” South London Press, 17 January, 1903
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.
Often when we visit with writers’ and researchers’ groups, we talk about the importance of layering your resources when you build a big multi-generational story like The Cowkeeper’s Wish. If you want to tell a social history as well as a family saga, as we were keen to do, you need to dig for details in all kinds of different places — in the census, birth and death records, of course, but also in the newspaper archive and in war diaries and philanthropist’s notebooks and so on and so forth. When we first began this project, we never imagined how many resources we’d use to search for clues to our family’s past. It is a thrilling experience, I can happily report. You start to feel a little like a detective when you do this kind of work, and the more practiced you become, of course, the better you are at sleuthing. I’m working on a new book now — not family-based this time, but also non-fiction, and set at the end of WW1, so I am using many of the same resources and approaches we used for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, and also realizing that I am hooked on telling true stories pulled piece by piece from the past. There’s no better job for someone who loves crumbly rippled ledgers and curled photographs and maps with streetnames that no longer exist.
Tracy has this same pull to the past, and so we were both delighted to see the cover design for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, which is in its own way a layering of resources. The images were cleverly put together by Anna Comfort O’Keeffe at Douglas & McIntyre, and each one she selected has a meaningful connection to the story.
The frilled gold on the outer edge of the cover image, as you can see here, comes from our grandmother’s baptismal certificate. You can see it is signed by E. C. Carter — that’s the Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter, who died just two years later on the Titanic. The family story goes that he and his wife Lilian (who my grandmother was named for) were dear friends of the family — though that’s probably not really true, since they came from very different backgrounds at a time when background really mattered. More likely, they were enormously admired by our family members, who must have been devastated when they died. The connection gave us a fresh new way to weave the story of the Titanic into our own tale.
This next layer in from the outer edge is a letter written by our great uncle, Joe Deverill, in 1923, saying goodbye to his younger siblings as they leave England for Canada. He offers brotherly advice — “mind who you mix with on the boat” — and urges them to remember that “although the (Old Home) has broken up we are still Sisters and Brothers and I would like you to write and let me know how you get on.”
Next in from Joe’s letter is a portion of Charles Booth’s poverty maps, made as part of his Inquiry into Life and Labour in London. Social investigators colour-coded the city as to level of poverty: black streets were vicious and criminal, dark blue were very poor with chronic want, on up to light blue, purple, pink, red and finally yellow, reserved for the wealthy upper classes. Booth’s maps, and the notebooks his investigators used to record their findings as they prowled the city, were an excellent way for us to “see” the neighbourhoods we were writing about.
The cover also features an image of the Metagama, the ship our grandmother came to Canada on, in the care of a family friend. It was 1919, and the ship had only recently been used as a troop carrier.
Below the Metagama is a photograph of our grandmother as a girl (with bathing cap), playing at the beach with her new Canadian friend. Beside them floats the lucky penny our great uncle Joe had kept in his pocket the day the Mary Rose sank. This mix of personal and historical imagery is an excellent fit with the book itself, which is both an intimate family story and a social history.
After years of research, seeing all these pieces of the puzzle worked into the cover image for our book was a lovely surprise, and still serves as a reminder of the many places that hold clues to the past for those who love to go searching.
We’ve written about thieves aplenty in our book and on this blog too, even delving into stories about child thieves — but here’s a new twist: thieves who stole from children.
In searching out events that occurred on Red Cross Street, Southwark, where our family lived for generations, I came upon a newspaper article dated May 1893; it told of a 19-year-old woman named Mary Ann Blacklock, who’d pleaded guilty to several indictments for stealing the boots and clothing of nine-year-old Alice Fentum, the daughter of a labourer who lived in Red Cross Street.
On Good Friday, Alice was sent out on an errand, and soon encountered Mary Ann, who encouraged the girl to walk with her. They ambled for close to two hours, and ended up in a neighbourhood far from Alice’s home. They spent the night in a wash house, and in the morning, Mary Ann crept away with Alice’s boots under her arm. When Alice woke, she wandered out into the street and found a police constable, who returned her to her parents. Mary Ann was known to the police; it was said that she regularly “waylaid little children coming home from school, took them away to some secluded place, and stole their clothing.” She’d been convicted of similar offences several times before, and this time was sentenced to seven months hard labour.
But she wasn’t the only such thief. A quick search in the British Newspaper Archive, using terms like “robbing a child” and “stealing from children,” turns up plenty of examples. (Have a look at the headings in the list of articles below.)
In March of 1865, a woman named Ann Kernow stole a shawl from a five-year-old girl, and cried on being apprehended; and in July of 1873, Isabella Miller stole a little girl’s worsted stockings and hid them away in the passage of the dwelling where she was living. In January of 1890, Jane Burnside was charged with stealing (and of course pawning!) a pair of boots that belonged to her four-year-old niece. “PC Marshall said that when he took Burnside into custody she replied that it was all right. This was her 19th appearance.” Jemima Bennett, charged in 1899, had a similar “bad record,” and was sent to the Sessions for stealing from a five-year-old: she “took her shawl from her and made off.”
It’s hard to imagine sinking to such a low, no matter how desperate life becomes, but the whole story can never be told in a tiny newspaper mention, or even in court records. Ancestry holds an absolutely engrossing stash of records for females convicted for stealing skirts and boots and umbrellas and even bacon; sometimes the documents include startling biographical information — “husband and child in the same gaol” — and sorry looking mugshots reminiscent of the asylum photos that included our Ellen Evans. An initial search through the criminal database has not turned up any of the thieves-of-children mentioned here, though some may be lurking under different names.
Just the same, there are clues in the newspaper accounts that add detail to their stories. In April of 1892, Emily Blaber, “a servant out of situation,” was remanded for stealing a pair of boots from a five-year-old girl. And on Christmas Eve in 1897, Elizabeth Cook was charged with stealing a child’s jacket.
“The child was looking in the window of a sweetstuff shop at York-road, Battersea, when the prisoner went up to him and said, ‘Ain’t the sweets nice?’ She gave the child a halfpenny, telling him that she would take care of his coat while he entered the shop for some sweets. As soon as he entered the shop the woman made off with the coat. A working man named Winkworth Harbourne, of Belfern-street, Battersea, who had been watching the prisoner’s movements, went after her and gave her into custody. It was mentioned that the prisoner had been previously convicted for a similar offence. The magistrate said there was no more detestable creature than the thief who preys on the innocence of young children.”
Even if the jacket — or the money she’d get for it — was intended as a present for Elizabeth’s own child, the crime is despicable. But what drove these women to such measures in the first place? In both the newspaper accounts and the criminal register, many were repeat offenders. Throughout September of 1898, under the heading Apprehensions Sought, the Police Gazette ran three subsequent notices about Mary Ann Blacklock, the woman who had led little Alice Fentum out of Red Cross Street five years earlier:
“For stealing parcels of clothing from child outside pawnshop — MARY ANN BLACKLOCK, alias MARIAN BLACKLOCK, DAVIS, BLACKLAND, POLLY OTT, &c., age 24, height 5 ft. 2 in., complexion fresh, hair dark brown, eyes hazel, thick lips, pock marked … wearing dark clothing and shawl. A flower seller. May be found in the hop district. Information to be forwarded to the Metropolitan Police Office, New Scotland Yard, S.W.”
“Stealing from a Child.” Northampton Mercury, 11 March, 1865.
Valentine’s Day was a big deal in Victorian London, so much so that newspapers often reported on how many tens of thousands of cards were sent out on the backs of busy postmen. Leading up to the day, there were notices urging people to send their missives early, so that the system would not be overloaded. Perfumer Eugene Rimmel made smart use of the occasion, expanding his business to include the manufacture of Valentine’s cards that were scented with his perfume. Here’s a little find from an 1870 issue of Penny Illustrated.
One of the sights of London on St. Valentine’s Eve is the exterior of any of M. Rimmel’s establishments. The valentines of this famous perfumer growing in popularity every year, the middle of February attracts more and more disciples of the lovers’ saint to 96, Strand. Every variety of swain and sweetheart hie thither, and form a study as interesting as the beauteous and delicate works of art which they gaze at, as if perplexed as to which to choose. M. Rimmel’s valentines are this year even more charming than ever. He has been fortunate enough to hit upon an artist who paints a fair face with a magic touch, and is alike happy in delineating blonde and brunette. As graceful in design as the valentines in which these irresistible beauties appear are some choice specimens adorned by real birds, rich in plumage, and stuffed with such skill that they would make handsome ornaments for any mantelpiece. The floral lovemissives, scented sachets, and girl-of-the-period valentines also merit a word of praise. They are worthy of that arch match-maker M. Rimmel, whose name will be in good odour, we trust, with many happy couples this season.
Some of the ancestors we wrote about in The Cowkeeper’s Wishspent time in the workhouse, and if they had children when they entered, they were sent to pauper schools, as was the case with the Vanson branch of our story. Richard Vanson, born in the 1860s, grew up to marry our great grandmother’s sister Jennie, but long before that, he was the child of parents mired in poverty, who frequently moved from place to place. His father had done time for burglary before Richard was born, and was listed as a hawker on the 1861 and 1871 census. In 1872, he died of tuberculosis, at just 42 years old, leaving Richard’s mother to care for Richard and his six siblings. By 1875, she too fell ill, with the same “lingering malady,” and died in Newington Workhouse. Richard was nine then, and sent to the Central London District School at Hanwell, nicknamed Cuckoo Schools since it was built on Cuckoo Hill, on farmland outside the city. For several decades, the school housed the parish’s orphans and so-called destitute children. Charlie Chaplin and his brother attended when their mother Hannah entered the workhouse. Despite the beautiful country setting — a breath of fresh air for “pauper” children from London — Chaplin later wrote that his time there was “a forlorn existence” and that “Sadness was in the air.”
Richard Vanson’s three younger siblings — a brother and two sisters — went with him to Hanwell, and the three older ones fended for themselves; from that point on, the siblings never lived as a family again. While conducting our research of the place, trying to find out what it must have been like for children living out their childhoods there, as the Vansons did, we scoured the newspaper archive for mentions of Hanwell, and among our finds were notices placed in a “Long Lost Relatives” column in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper.
From 1886: “Alice Hutchinson has not been heard of by her brother since she left him at Hanwell school about 15 years ago.”
From 1889: “James Boneer, who 22 years ago left St Pancras workhouse for Hanwell school, wishes to hear of his relatives.”
From 1893: “Vincent (Frederick) left Hanwell Schools, Middlesex, in July 1879; when last heard of was AB on HMS Victory at Portsmouth. Sister Kate inquires.”
From 1895: “George William Rapley would like to trace his parents, whom he has never seen or heard of. He was put in a school at Hanwell called the Cuckoo School.”
Curious about the history of the column itself, I did a bit more digging, and found that sometimes there were so many entries of people searching for loved ones that they were divided by category: Parents and Children, Brothers Seeking Sisters, Sisters Seeking Sisters, and so on. The columns make for heart-breaking reading, but often contain good news too, such as at Christmas in 1886, when a reader wrote to say “I beg to tender my heartfelt thanks for helping me, through your valuable paper, to find the whereabouts of my mother, whom for about 11 years I had heard nothing whatever of, but from whom I received a letter by last mail.”
By the time the Long Lost Relatives column had a regular place in Lloyd’s Weekly in the mid-1880s, the paper had been around for more than 40 years. It had been founded by Edward Lloyd, who declared from the outset, “We have no private interest to serve; no party to land. We enter the political ocean a free trader. Our flag is independence, and we will nail it to the mast.” Lloyd was one of the fathers of the “penny bloods,” dramatic, serialized stories that were hugely popular with the working class. With Lloyd’s Weekly, he became a sort of “pioneer of the cheap press,” bringing the masses a newspaper they could afford. One writer claimed that, prior to Lloyd’s, “If a person of humble means wanted to know what was going on in the world, he would have to go to a public house and borrow the Morning Advertiser.”
The paper’s content was often unexpected, and included material not typically found in other publications. Inspiration for the lost relatives column apparently grew out of an 1877 letter submitted to the newspaper, for which Lloyd’s ran the following notice:
F. W. Wheeler, photographer, of Richford, Vermont, USA, sends us an account of an unknown Englishman drowned in America. The accident occurred in the Missisquoi River at Richford, Vermont, on June 28, 1874. The deceased, a young man, was supposed to be Henry Preston, of Holborn, London. In his pockets were found a letter from his mother, and two worn photographs, probably of his mother and little sister. Our correspondent encloses copies of the photographs, also a copy of the letter.
The next Sunday, under the heading “A Message from the Grave,” Lloyd’s told its readers that “Monday morning brought the sorrowing mother of the deceased to our office.” She had the same photographs with her, and said that the last letter she’d had from her son had been dated just days before the accident. Since then, she’d known nothing of his whereabouts.
More such inquiries followed over the years — parents anxious to hear from sons and daughters “scattered abroad”; siblings separated by misfortune; wives hunting out “husbands who appear to have purposely disappeared.” (These last the paper claimed were impossible cases, and didn’t take them on.) Eventually the queries became so frequent that the paper decided to run a regular column, and in May 1886 headed the piece with the notice:
Letters continue to pour in upon us from correspondents asking the aid of Lloyd’s to discover relatives of whom all trace has been lost for many years. We shall deal with these mainly in the order they are received, giving, however, the preference to mothers seeking their children, and printing as many as circumstances will permit each week.
The paper’s popularity grew, and the column ran until at least 1900, as far as I can tell. People wrote in from all over the world, and also from the humblest spots in London, where they’d lost track of each other. Lloyd’s published shortened versions of the letters and kept the longer on file, hoping for responses, and including these in the column when they came. A quick glimpse shows the multitude of ways families had been fragmented, and the pain it caused years afterwards. But sometimes people were reunited, even decades later, simply by way of a small notice in the newspaper, printed free of charge. Others, of course, never found each other. It’s astonishing to read these desperate notices now, what with social media, and the ease of spreading information not just far and wide but instantly.
Richard Vanson left Hanwell at 15, to be apprenticed as a bootmaker. He eventually settled back in his childhood neighbourhood, where he met and married Jennie and made his way into our family tree. Many of his siblings pop up at nearby addresses, so they seem to have made an attempt to return “home” and be close to each other, despite the system that separated them at such a young age. But their trials were far from over. Richard died young, just as his parents had, and of the same illness. And when his brother entered the workhouse as a grown man, likely down on his luck, his children were sent on to Hanwell, just as he and his siblings had been.
Tracy and I recently spoke about The Cowkeeper’s Wish to the wonderfully enthusiastic and knowledgeable group, the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa (BIFHSGO), and in preparation for the event, I was reminded of our work researching Stone Asylum in Dartford, Kent, where one of our relatives, Ellen Roff nee Evans, spent a number of years in the early 1900s, “suffering from melancholia with marked depression,” the case notes say.
On our research trip back in 2012, were fortunate enough to read through these casebooks ourselves at London Metropolitan Archives, and to see the red-rimmed photographs that accompanied the notes. As we turned the rippled pages wearing our white gloves, we learned a little about some of the other women who were at Stone in the same years Ellen was. One grinned out at the camera with a challenging expression, and another glowered with her arms folded. An elderly patient sat with a nurse standing behind her, to prop up her chin for the portrait. She was “harmless and weak,” the notes say, but also “dirty and demented.” The most astonishing portrait showed a young woman pressing a hand over her eyes, and hugging her torso with her other arm. The notes say, “She believes she is here to have her light taken out.”
I wanted to dive into each of these stories, and find out as much as I could about these women — but of course we had enough work on our hands telling our own family story. So we took some photographs, jotted some notes to give context to Ellen’s experience, and closed the book. Years later, though, I think of the women often.
One of them gave her name as Annie Elizabeth Hancock nee Strachan. She was 39 years old in 1907, when she was admitted to Newport Asylum in Wales. The record gives her address at the time as 1 Woodland Road, Newport, but there’s no doubt she was a London woman, which must be why, in 1909, she was transferred to Stone Asylum, where Ellen was. She was diagnosed with delusional insanity, with causes listed as “family troubles and a love affair (prolonged mental illness).” Case notes tell us she believed she was “able to hear in her own head the thoughts of others.” Tucked in with the doctors’ notes was a letter she’d written herself, warning Stone Asylum’s Medical Officer of Health about a possible impostor among them.
There has been so much shuffling over my not going home that there must be some reason for it, on Dr. Nelis’s part. Early last August Dr. Nelis went for a 3 weeks holiday. He was a fat man with a very red face, bright blue eyes with remarkable clear whites and dark hair and moustache with a short clipped beard. At the end of August, his facsimile came back, but it must have been either his twin brother or a very near relation, but there were differences in the two men, slight, it’s true, and most people meeting him casually perhaps would not notice. The man that returned had always a pale face, hair greyer, beard much greyer, eyes of cloudy grey with a touch of blue; the whites were dull with brownish splotches; his shoulders seemed broader, and he walked with a quicker step than Nelis. Now this second man had been about the asylum on isolated occasions before the August holiday, because I had noticed the difference in face and beard. But the two men were so similar I knew it was no good making remarks. On the last Sunday in September, the bright blue eyed man reappeared and I had a good look at him because I asked him if I could have a room upstairs in 6 as I got smoke in my sideroom in Ward I. This man I never saw again in the asylum, & if that was the first Nelis returned for some purpose of his own, he had dyed his beard and moustache jet black, because the original Nelis’s moustache & beard were dark brown. Dr. Nelis was Dr. Glendinning’s assistant at Abergavenny for 25 years, [so Glendinning] ought to know if it was the same man. . … Anyone can see what a muddle such a state of affairs might cause. … If they are two men, where is the first Nelis, & what did he go for? & if the second man is not a doctor at all, he can be prosecuted for practicing without certificates. …”
Annie wrote this letter in March 1909, shortly after being admitted to Stone. Dr. William Francis Nelis worked at Newport, not at Stone, so one would guess Annie was attempting to convince the powers that be at Stone that something untoward had gone on at Newport, and was preventing her discharge. I wish now that I’d photographed all the pages about Annie in the Stone Asylum casebook, but I’m left with only fragments, and a growing curiosity about both the patient and the doctor with the bright blue eyes — not to mention his pale facsimile.
Annie Elizabeth Strachan was the eldest of five, born in London to Archibald and Elizabeth Charlotte Strachan in 1867. Her father was a butcher, and the family lived on Albany Street for many years. In 1891, though, they appear with her grandparents in Lambeth, and Annie, 23, is listed as “artist — oil and watercolour.” By 1901, her mother has died, and she is working at home as a lace milliner. The surprising detail here is that, though she is living with her father, her grandfather, and a grown-up brother, Annie herself, the only female, is listed as head of the household.
So what happened to land her in Newport and then Stone Asylum? The clue lies somewhere in the “family troubles and a love affair” note in her file, and perhaps in her surname, Hancock. I can find no appropriate record of an Annie Elizabeth Strachan marrying a man named Hancock, and a note in her file states “proper name is Miss Annie Elizabeth Strachan” — note the underscoring. So was Hancock the man she had the affair with and simply wished she was married to? Certainly our own Ellen, estranged from her husband Fred Roff, used a different surname — Humphreys — when she met and had children with another man, though they never officially married. Maybe something similar happened with Annie. The probate record for her mother’s death in 1894 includes the name Robert John Hancock, coachman, but so far I can’t officially link him with Annie.
Of Dr. Nelis, more surfaces. William Francis Nelis was born in Australia in 1855 to Irish parents. His mother and baby sister died when he was just three, and he and his father eventually moved to Scotland. Nelis studied medicine, and was drawn to the field of psychiatry. After a brief stint as a ship’s surgeon, he took a position at Carmarthen Mental Hospital, and then at Abergavenny, where he remained for 25 years, the very detail Annie Elizabeth Strachan included in her letter. But the curious thing is, Annie does not seem to have been a patient at Abergavenny, so how did she know that Nelis had worked there for 25 years? According to the obituary, she was right, too, that at Abergavenny, Nelis was assistant to Dr. James Glendinning — the man Annie felt certain could spot a fake Nelis, because they’d worked together for so long. But again, how did she know of Glendinning? In 1905, Nelis was appointed Medical Officer at the newly opened institution at Newport, which must be where he and Annie encountered each other, since she entered that asylum in 1907. Nelis remained at Newport for the rest of the his career, retiring in 1929, just three years before his death.
The new hospital was apparently his life’s work, and according to his obituary, he treated the patients there with an uncommon kindness: “his ear was ever ready to listen to their grievances, however trivial.” Obituaries always emphasize nice things about people, but the write-up but goes on to say that he was a profoundly knowledgeable psychiatrist, and that modesty and shyness kept him in the shadows. “He realized there was a long road to travel before the secrets of mental diseases were laid bare.” He was also interested in botany, and had an “artistic bent,” like Annie the painter, perhaps; he oversaw the landscaping of the grounds at Newport, where a long avenue of trees led to the asylum, and shrubs were arranged artistically around it.
“Dr. Nelis was under middle height, but in spite of lack of inches, he had a dignified personality; his eyes were keen and shrewd, and he was endowed with common sense and excellent judgment. In addition he was blessed with an extraordinarily retentive memory, which remained unimpaired to the end. He could recall by name patients who had left the hospital many years before, together with their peculiarities.”
No doubt he would have remembered Annie Elizabeth Strachan just as clearly as she remembered him.
When Dr. Nelis died, he willed some of his money to his longtime housemaid, and to others who’d worked for and with him at the asylum; other portions went to a number of different hospitals, nursing funds, a society for the blind, and a hospice for the dying. The largest portion by far went to the Committee of Visitors of the Newport Mental Hospital, Caerleon. They were asked to use the money at their discretion to assist “necessitous mental patients on their discharge from the hospital.”
Once again it strikes me that a man is often much easier to research than a woman, especially when he has money and an important position, and she has neither. I have yet to discover when — or whether — Annie Strachan left Stone Asylum, or if her suspicions about Nelis and his facsimile were ever put to rest. She doesn’t appear at Stone on the 1911 census, but I haven’t found her with certainty anywhere else either. One positive note is that her case file suggests her recovery is “probable,” so maybe she fared better than our Ellen, who left Stone in 1910 only to re-enter the workhouse, where she lived out the remainder of her years. Perhaps in Annie’s case the “family troubles” mentioned in her file got resolved? Her record shows she entered Stone as a pauper patient, but was re-classified as a private patient in 1910. So someone, somewhere was contributing to her care.
City of London Mental Hospital [later Stone House Hospital], Patient Records, Female Casebooks: CLA/001, London Metropolitan Archives
It was a coster wedding, at which, by lucky chance, I once happened to be present. … It was difficult at first to distinguish which were the bride and bridegroom-elect; but there was one lad, the splendour of whose tie and the redundance of whose buttons proclaimed him to be the happy man; and on his arm there leaned a maid whose face shone with soap and happiness, and the feathers of whose hat stood out several inches further over its brim than those on the headgear of her companions, and therefore marked her as the bride.
“A Costermonger’s Wedding,” Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, 1912
During the years of researching our Victorian-era family for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we came upon a number of marriages that took place on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Working class people typically worked six days a week in those times, and these were two days that they and their relatives could probably count on having to themselves. On top of that, churches often offered their services free or at reduced rates on Christmas, and a flip through marriage registers shows a definite spike in the number of ceremonies performed.
Our great grandmother’s sister, Jennie Evans, married her shoemaker love Richard Vanson on December 25, 1890, at St. Saviour’s Church in Southwark. Nowadays St. Saviour’s is the beautiful Southwark Cathedral, but at the time of Jennie’s wedding, it was in the midst of a long overdue renovation that would transform it from “as vile a preaching-place as ever disgraced the 19th century” into a glorious place of worship.
The ongoing work made the normally large church tiny, and the only place in use at the time of Jennie and Richard’s wedding was the ancient and intimate Lady Chapel, a portion of St. Saviour’s that had not been spoiled in earlier renovations. Jennie’s sister (our great grandmother) and her brother-in-law signed as witnesses to their union.
The minister was busier than usual that day. The register shows 13 couples were joined in holy matrimony on the 25th, more than double the amount that took place in all of December. The grooms list jobs like lighterman, brush maker, and varnish maker, and hail from addresses close to Jennie and Richard’s on Red Cross Street, so they were no doubt poor, and happy to reap the benefits of marrying on Christmas Day.
The tradition had begun years earlier, and continued for decades, though it’s a challenge to find out what such weddings were really like, since the people who wrote about the working class — however fine their intentions — were often not of that class themselves, but rather outsiders looking in. In 1866 the writer and social explorer James Greenwood described “penny wedders” arriving at a London church, and wrote of a guest: “[his] attire was not at all of a bridal character, and consisted of greasy fustian, and a dirty cotton neckerchief wisped about the collar of his blue-checked shirt. His face was dirty, too, as were his hands — a fault he seemingly was not unconscious of, as from time to time he gave them a sly rub on his coat-tail.”
As more couples poured in to the church to be married, writes Greenwood, “sight-seers flocked in to see the fun. The candidates for matrimony were nearly all of the very lowest order, and the marrying couples were, as a rule, very young. There were exceptions however. In one case an old man, at least sixty, had brought to the altar an old woman as old as himself, and who wore on her marriage finger as many plain rings as should and doubtless would have been a caution to the old gentleman had they each represented a previous espousal; but they did not. A fancy for wearing plain rings prevails amongst many barrow-women, and they prefer them to stone rings. There was another instance of middle-aged folks coming together, and one that was rendered remarkable from the fact of the parents bringing with them a troop of illegitimate children—the eldest a lanky boy of fifteen—to see them ‘made honest.’ I gathered this fact from the buzzing and whispering about me, and it was curious to note the variety of opinion that prevailed on the subject. Some said it was a good thing, and ‘better late than never.’ Others, that it was a bad thing, and a pity that some people must make ‘poppy shows of theirselves.'”
Christmas weddings certainly happened because people were poor and had little time away from their jobs. An 1865 article notes that a Lambeth clergyman had to commence his marriage ceremonies at 8 a.m. that Christmas in order to get through them all. And in 1899 in the East End, some 84 ceremonies were performed at one church. “They were mostly the costermonger class,” the article notes. “They were accompanied by large numbers of their friends, and crowds of people assembled outside the building and saluted each departing couple with showers of rice and confetti. The proceedings were enlivened with selections from mouth-organs.” There are stories of couples being married five at a time, and even a dozen at a time, “and it is satisfactory to know that the various husbands and wives paired off happily, without any ill results of this great ‘mix.'”
Sadly, there are few proper wedding portraits in our family archive from this period, and an online search for Victorian weddings more commonly turns up images of privileged people. At one extreme end of the spectrum, Prince George and Mary of Teck married just a few years after Jennie and Richard, and the opulent setting is depicted in this Laurits Tuxen painting, where light streams through the chapel windows at St. James Palace, and the jewels and taffeta shine.
Bargain Christmas weddings continued well into the 20th century, and really only began to die out as working conditions improved. The practice was still in place during WW1, when our ancestor Clara Donnelly married a munitions worker named Bert Morel. Listed alongside them in the register that day and the next are other munitions workers and soldiers marrying their brides, and perhaps adding “Happy Christmas” after the “I do.”
“84 Couples Married at One Church.” Coventry Evening Telegraph, 26 December, 1899.
“Christmas Marriage in Birmingham.” Leicester Chronicle, 3 January, 1891.
“Christmas Marriages at St. Mary’s.” South London Press, 30 December, 1865.
“At a Penny Wedding.” Shields Daily News, 25 September, 1866.