Tiny glowing reviews from readers are trickling in for The Cowkeeper’s Wish in various places. I especially love one that describes the setting as “the stinky London of Charles Dickens” and calls the book “a vivid story about regular people in the real world.” That’s what Dickens wrote about too; his characters were fictional, but the world he placed them in existed in all its sooty splendour.
Our ancestors, Benjamin and Margaret Jones, arrived in Red Cross Street in Southwark in the late 1830s, around the time Oliver Twist began appearing in monthly instalments in Bentley’s Miscellany. Some say the workhouse in Oliver Twist was modeled on the Mint Street workhouse, steps away from our ancestral home, and condemned by the Lancet as “a den of horrors.” Though the esteemed medical journal called for its removal and labeled the tramp ward “an open sty,” the workhouse remained in place until the 1920s, and is a landmark in our own family history. The Mint Street workhouse makes regular appearances in our story, and was sadly the eventual home for Benjamin and Margaret’s daughter, “Lazy Mary.” Family lore says that Mary entered the workhouse after her husband died, because she was too lazy to care for herself. There is more to the story, of course — no one enters a den of horrors out of laziness. But the fact that the story exists speaks volumes about the stigma attached to workhouse “inmates.”
Dickens had strong ties to our family’s neighbourhood. When he was just a boy, his father was sent to Marshalsea Prison under the debtors’ act. Some of Dickens’ siblings and their mother lived there too while the sentence was carried out, but Charles, just 12 at that point, lived nearby on Lant Street and worked in a blacking factory. Lant Street appears in the bottom left area of the map shown, and the letters “BD SCH” stand for “board school.” Many members of our family attended the Lant Street Board School, which opened in the late 1870s, and served the poor children of the area. In the late 1890s, the annual school report noted that “in a low locality like this,” a more distinctive school name connected to the history of the area might be a good idea. And since Dickens had already been commemorated in many placenames throughout the Borough, “Would not therefore Charles Dickens School, Lant Street, Southwark, be an appropriate name for this school?” It took years more for the change to come about, but finally, by 1912, the name was in place. Our grandmother Doris and her siblings attended, and so did many of their cousins.
Dickens placenames pop up throughout this neighbourhood: there’s Quilp Street, Copperfield Street, and Dickens Square. And tucked in behind Red Cross Street (now Redcross Way) is Little Dorrit Playground, put in place by the London County Council in 1901 to address the notion that childhood was “blighted” in this impoverished area. One writer claimed the children here were “more woe-begone, unwashed and unhealthy-looking” than any in the city. If you ask me, the girls above look ordinary and even lovely enough — but earlier pictures do show children in bare feet, with ragged clothing and an unkempt appearance.
If the playground was meant to brighten children’s lives, a social reformer wandering through shortly after it was put in place was not impressed. The space was surrounded by high walls. It had one gas lamp in the centre and a drinking fountain. “It is essentially a playground for rough children, no seats because of the encouragement to loafers, nor any caretaker. I have only been there during school hours,” he admitted, “when few children were about.”
The area has changed, of course, since those “stinky” days. While much of our years-long research was done online, we visited London to see the site of our story for ourselves. It gave us chills to walk along Redcross Way, up past Crossbones Cemetery, and over to Borough Market. We ate lunch on the grounds of Southwark Cathedral, where Benjamin and Margaret and others in our line were married, and we studied in the local history library, right next to St. George the Martyr Church, where Little Dorrit was married, and where a wall from Marshalsea Prison still stands. These are just some of the remnants that are left from the years when our family lived and loved here.
For some wonderful pictures and stories about Dickens’ connections to Southwark, visit the Southwark Heritage Blog.
I’m looking forward to giving a workshop in London, Ontario, later this week called Digging Up Stories, and it’s got me thinking over the wide variety of resources we used during our research for The Cowkeeper’s Wish. One of the most illuminating was the British Newspaper Archive, which contains digitized papers from the British Library collection dating back to the 1700s. We found our cowkeeper lurking in those pages, dangerously diluting his milk, and we found his daughter Lazy Mary too, “seized with giddiness” just before she died at the workhouse infirmary. Family detail is gold when writing this sort of story — but newspapers of the day offer plenty of insight even when family names don’t appear.
As I’ve written before, much of our story takes place in Red Cross Street, now Redcross Way, in Southwark in the mid to late 1800s. When we snooped through the newspaper archive for details of what was happening in the street at a certain time in our story, we were never disappointed. The articles helped us peer into the world in which we were writing about, and learn more about neighbours and local shops and industries; in reading about the crimes and scandals and celebrations that went on, we could better imagine what it might have been like to live in that place at that time.
Poverty, of course, was a constant theme. One longtime neighbour was a woman named Rosetta Hogg, who lived a few doors away from our cowkeeper and his wife, Benjamin and Margaret Jones. I have no idea if Benjamin and Margaret knew Rosetta — but I’m pretty sure they’d have known of her. By 1881, she had lived in the same room within 59 Red Cross Street for about 20 years, and in the neighbourhood for much longer. The census says that she was 72 years old, worked as a charwoman, and had been born in Southwark. It also says she lived alone in the room, but that wasn’t quite true, according to neighbours who lived in other rooms in the building; I pity the poor census taker who knocked on her door that April day to inquire about her particulars. She had “a ferocious black cat … which she threatened to set at anyone who dared to enter, and which kept the people in the house in a state of fear.”
The cat seemed to be the woman’s only companion. She had never married, and was apparently “so eccentric in her habits that for upwards of 10 years no one had been allowed to enter her room.” She was frightfully thin, and also old and alone. One day in December a neighbour brought her some sago pudding, which Rosetta accepted; but when the neighbour didn’t see or hear from Rosetta the next day, she became concerned, and called the police. Rosetta was found dead, huddled near the fireplace. Her body was emaciated, and her room was so filthy that carbolic acid was sprinkled around to disinfect the place before anything was touched. The windows were broken and stuffed with rags; the walls and floor were stained with grime; there was no furniture other than a “greasy mattress.” The cat sat quietly close by, not so ferocious after all.
At the coroner’s inquest it was revealed that for some time Rosetta Hogg had depended on outdoor relief from the parish, which meant that officials would have come round on a regular basis to check on her home situation. The coroner wanted to know “what the sanitary authorities had been about to allow a woman to live in this dirty state.” But the relieving officer testified that when he visited, she refused to let him enter, and that because of this he told her she was no longer eligible for assistance. She could enter the workhouse instead, he said, but she refused to go.
I wonder if it was the cat who kept her at home — where would it go if she left?
The “Applications for Relief” ledgers from this period make for sad reading. There’s nothing, unfortunately, for the year pertaining to Rosetta Hogg’s story, but an 1888 book from Southwark notes applicants’ particulars, including name, address, and occupation; forms of relief received elsewhere; what was given, its value, and how long it would be offered for; plus relatives’ details, since relatives were “liable by law to relieve the applicant” if capable of doing so. One woman, applying for assistance for herself and her six children, explained that “husband in prison” for assaulting her. But mostly this column was left blank, as if there wasn’t much point in asking the question. Some 28 columns run across each page, including one headed “Date of Last Visit at Residence of the Pauper.” It was no doubt a humiliating experience obtaining “relief” — but a step up, still, from entering the workhouse.
Testimony at the inquest showed Rosetta had promised to go to the workhouse later in the week, but died before she made it there. It’s hard to imagine that the workhouse would have been worse than her bleak, dirty room, for at least she would have been fed and had a less “greasy” mattress to sleep on. But at home she had independence and solitude, and the cat to care for — no small thing, the importance of caring for another living creature when you yourself are alone and struggling. Having a pet can make you feel useful and loved.
It’s impossible to know if this is how Rosetta Hogg felt, or what happened to the cat after she died. In our own family archive, only two pictures exist of her neighbours, Benjamin and Margaret Jones, and in one of them, through the creases and the washed out tones, you can just make out a cat on Benjamin’s lap. It isn’t Rosetta’s black cat — tabby stripes are apparent on the tail — but I like the link anyway, and the tiny bit of detail it gives us about who these people were. Benjamin looks at Margaret, and she and the cat both look out at the camera and whoever holds it. The photo was probably taken in the 1880s, in their tiny garden on Red Cross Street. Margaret died a few years after Rosetta, and Benjamin a few years after her, taking their stories with them.
“Death of an Eccentric Character.” South London Press, 17 December, 1881.
“Miserable Death of an Old Woman.” Gloucester Citizen, 12 December, 1881.
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.
In 1903, Tatler magazine featured this spread on tattooing, “the fashionable craze of to-day.” The work was that of tattoo artist Alfred South, who claimed by that time to have inked images on no less than 15,000 people, 900 of them English women.
An emigrant to England, South was born Alfred Charles George Schmidt in Karlsbad, Bohemia, and seems to have begun using the name South some time in the 1890s, when his tattooing career began. His big break came in May of 1898, at the Royal Aquarium, an amusement palace of sorts, with tightrope walkers, high divers, human cannonballs, and hypnotists. That spring, fellow tattooist Tom Riley had to step away from his busy booth there in order to deal with what the London Evening Standard termed “trouble with his wife, who wanted to poison herself.” (Flo Riley was frequently dubbed Tom’s “Tattooed Marvel” and was “covered with many beautiful designs in seven colours.”) South stepped in and must have quickly made his mark on the tattooing scene, for according to the Standard, Riley, upon his return, was so incensed at the thought of upstart South stealing his clients that soon he began to publicly harass South in the halls of the Royal Aquarium. South pressed charges, and Riley (whose wife survived her ordeal) was ordered to keep the peace. From then on, regular newspaper ads appear for South’s services, promising “any design, all colours” — and how it must have rankled Riley that sometimes South’s ads showed alongside his own.
By 1899, though, South’s livelihood was threatened when 21-year-old Louis Montgomery Forbes died of blood poisoning shortly after South had tattooed him. Papers carried headlines about the “peculiar circumstances” around Forbes’ death, and the dangers of tattooing, and South was called to testify at a coroner’s inquest.
Forbes had come to South for tattoos on several occasions; this time he requested a lion on his chest, a procedure that took 10 hours, according to South’s testimony. Every couple of hours, South asked Forbes if he’d like a break, but Forbes always declined. While South worked with his needles, Forbes drank 14 whiskies to dull the pain, and afterwards the two went out together for a bowl of soup and then to a public house to show off the lion to a friend. They parted ways, and that was the last South saw of him.
Forbes returned to his cousin’s house, and the next day felt unwell. Fourteen whiskies might do that to a person, so perhaps he was not at first alarmed. He told his cousin about receiving the tattoo — that it had taken a long time and been quite painful, but that he didn’t attribute his illness to the procedure. A doctor was called, but he continued to grow worse. Most likely he felt dizzy and disoriented; his heart raced; his skin turned clammy and pale, and he drifted into unconsciousness. Three days after receiving the tattoo, he died. Other doctors were called in to give their opinions of the cause of his death, and while all agreed it must have been blood poisoning, none could say it had anything to do with South’s tattooing.
For his part, South claimed that by this time he’d tattooed more than 5,000 people and never had a problem. He used a fresh set of needles for each customer, and during procedures he placed them in carbolic oil. He used only the best quality Chinese ink, which he produced as part of his testimony, and offered to eat it to prove his claim, but the coroner didn’t think that necessary. “The jury reached a verdict in accordance with the medical evidence, but attached no blame to the tattooist.”
South went on with his work. As he told one reporter, “You’d be surprised to know the number of people who come to me to be tattooed. And from all classes. I’ve tattooed lords and ladies of high degree, doctors, barristers, actors and actresses, men and women of all professions, just as I have tattooed soldiers and sailors and working men. What is it that makes them want to be tattooed? Well, I suppose it’s just a fad — that’s my only explanation of it.”
In 1906, South made the news again, telling of his recent exploits in Vienna, where he’d tattooed the arm of a tiger tamer. “His conditions were that I should go inside the cage and take my design from an unfettered animal. … I had nicely arranged all my apparatus on a table inside, and was just about to begin the sitting, when, without any warning, the brute leapt at me. I stood aside, only to see my table crushed under the heavy weight of the animal. Without waiting, I rushed outside the iron door, but after a while one of the attendants told me that everything was all right again. Well, I thought that one can die only once, and re-entered the cage, and after one-and-a-half hour’s sitting I had accomplished my task.”
Over the years what seems to have changed most was the kind of tattoo people desired. By January 1914, South was offering “your favourite horse, dog or cat tattooed upon your arm, neck, shoulder or ankle.” The Daily Mirror carried an image of him at work on a client. South sits in his lab coat, a dowdy, balding, somewhat round man who resembles Alfred Hitchcock. He holds his needle against a woman’s arm; she’s watching him work, and smiling a little tentatively, but South’s eyes study the dog she holds — a fluffy white lap dog — who in turns stares out at the camera with a seemingly baffled expression.
When war erupted later that year, two of South’s sons enlisted, surely thankful their father had long ago stopped using Schmidt as a surname. The younger son’s involvement was brief — just 18 and a Boy 1st Class on board the ship Edward VII, he was blown overboard in a gale and lost to the sea. His record shows his initials, LS, were tattooed on his upper left arm; the work of his father, perhaps — but simple and understated compared to Louis Forbes and the Tattooed Marvel.
Tattoos had long been popular among soldiers and sailors. In the box for “Wounds, Scars, Marks &c.,” service records note a plethora of horseshoes, crosses, women’s names, clusters of forget-me-nots, anchors, snakes, birds, and shamrocks. By 1915, women and girls — “who in ordinary times would not dream of being tattooed” — were coming to South wanting tattoos to remind them of a man who had gone off fighting. “The usual request is for a regimental badge to be etched on their arms, sometimes with the words ‘I love’ or ‘Yours forever.'”
Curiously, the desire for these “indelible mementoes” was something that seems to have puzzled him over the years. He regularly fulfilled requests for sweethearts who wanted each other’s portrait tattooed. But he mused, “it’s a bit awkward if they both should happen to change.” One can imagine him shrugging and simply carrying on. By the time of the First World War, South had been tattooing for some 20 years, and must have marveled that “the fashionable craze of to-day” was also the craze of tomorrow, of the next day, and the day after that.
Among the most treasured research tools we employed to write The Cowkeeper’s Wish are the photographs, letters, postcards and documents passed down through the generations. Holding something so old in your hands, you inch just a bit closer to the history you’re seeking, even if the object doesn’t tell you much more than you already knew. Likely, though, it does offer more than you first think.
The 1877 card above, for instance, comes from an offshoot in our family tree, and is typical of mourning cards of this period: three by four-and-a-half inches, made of thick paper with a striking black-and-white design, embossed with symbolic, funereal images. For something made of paper, it feels heavy in the hand, and looks elegant and important. In Victorian times, mourning cards were just one small part of the strict rituals around death, put in place by the upper crust but closely observed by the poor as well. They were sent out after the funeral had happened, and meant to be kept as a memento of the person who’d died.
This card for Queen Victoria’s beloved husband Albert was made in 1861, and unlike our family example, was created for the wider public as a way for them to participate in mourning the prince. According to the Victoria & Albert Museum, “Death was highly visible in Victorian culture. It was a time for communal feeling, studied response and ritual. People were encouraged to give public expression to their grief, and an industry of mourning dress and mementoes provided visible reminders of the dead. The death of Prince Albert in 1861 contributed to the cult of mourning that lasted for much of the 19th century. Part of the ritual was to send out beautifully embossed mourning cards in memory of the deceased. This card for Prince Albert … was mounted in a cheap frame for display in a modest room.”
Though the images are similar, the woman remembered in our family example — Mary Ann Bedford nee Bright — was of much humbler means. Married to a shoemaker, she worked at different times as a boot binder and a seamstress, and had 10 children. She lived with her family in Mile End, London, where her husband engaged the services of a local undertaker when she died. The name on the mourning card, Moses John Hickman, first appears in newspapers in 1845, under the heading “Apology.”
I, the undersigned, having exhibited several libellous Placards concerning Mr. Moses John Hickman, … Undertaker, respecting a disputed account between us, and which reflected on his character and credit as a tradesman, and he having commenced an action for libel against me, has consented to withdraw it upon my making this public apology, and paying his law costs. Geo. Henry Kelly, Printer, 1, New Road, St. George’s, East.
The notice doesn’t reveal what the dispute was about, but Hickman seems to have been conscious of maintaining a solid reputation thereafter, for the many advertisements that appear over the next decades promise “economy and respectability in funerals,” with “good black horses and proper fittings always used.” Just days after Mary Ann Bedford’s death, in January 1878, Hickman took out a longer ad, guaranteeing that “obsequies [would be] performed with respectability and decorum.”
CAUTION. — I beg to inform the Public that some Undertakers and others have issued a facsimile of my Prospectus, thereby deceiving them, by relying on Extras to make up their bills, instead of keeping to the sum specified in their advertisements. I have no connexion with any other establishment, and am only surprised that, in the present enlightenment—although a sense of duty might not restrain—Education does not make men abashed at the thought of being guilty of so mean an action as to rely on the merits of my productions to gain public favour.
Following the caution, he laid out the specific costs he charged for different types of funerals. A “walking funeral” for a grown person was £1/10; a carriage funeral, “with coffin and all requirements,” was £2; if you wanted to add a separate hearse and mourning coach, the cost went up to £3; add pairs of horses and the charge was £4; and up it went until you got to £17 for a more lavish display with “leaden coffin, stout elm shell and case covered with fine cloth, hearse, … two mourning coaches (pairs), ostrich plumes and velvets, lid of feathers, mutes, pages, &c.” These seem like tiny amounts to us now, but they were large sums for the working class at the time.
None of this, of course, tells us much about Mary Ann Bedford herself — or even about Moses Hickman. Maybe he did engage in shoddy business practices, despite his indignant statements. Or maybe was as upright as he sounds; after all, his career endured for decades. But the little clues uncovered here support the notion that funerals were big business, and that people were taken advantage of in their time of grief, not only due to the rigid customs of the times, but due to dishonesty and greed. Was Mary Ann Bedford’s family swindled? Or were they happy with the services performed to say goodbye to this 47-year-old wife and mother? These peripheral clues give some context as to the environment she lived and died in, and the concerns her family might have had regarding her funeral and burial.
Another clue lies in the very existence of the card, so many years after the death. Mary Ann Bedford’s daughter, Martha, was about 12 years old when her mother died. She never married or had children of her own, but when a dear friend (also Mary Ann!) died in 1917 when she was in her mid-forties, Martha took in the woman’s 10-year-old daughter and raised her as her own.
That girl, Doris Deverill, was our grandmother — an orphan like Martha — and it was she who kept the mourning card after Martha died, so that it continued to pass down through our own family, though we have no blood link to the Bedford line. That Martha Bedford and Doris Deverill both lost their mothers at a similar age was likely part of the special bond between them.
“Apology.” Morning Advertiser, 3 November, 1845.
“Respectable Funerals.” East London Observer, 5 January, 1878.
Browsing through the 1869 Cassell’s Household Guide to Every Department of Practical Life, I came upon an intriguing recipe “To Render Ladies’ Dresses Incombustible.” If you mixed your whitening with starch, you could make “lace, net, muslin, gauze, or any other light stuff, perfectly inflammable. As white dresses are much worn at evening parties, where fires are often kept in the grates, and numerous ladies have been burnt to death by means of their dresses catching light whilst dancing, it is hoped this useful receipt will not be forgotten by any lady in the habit of attending balls and parties.”
Voluminous dresses were fashionable through the 1850s and 1860s, and a search through newspapers of that period turns up a shocking number of deaths from the garments catching fire. It’s thought that something like 3,000 women perished this way in England alone. Both Cassell’s advice and the lithograph above — labeled “the horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life” — make us think of well-to-do ladies twirling in beautiful ballrooms before tragedy strikes; but all classes were caught up in the fashion craze Punch called “crinolinemania,” and the sparks of flame didn’t care if you were a colonel’s wife, like Anna Maria Grant, or a servant girl, like Mary Anne Winterbotham.
Anna Maria Grant was sitting in a London drawing room on Christmas Day in 1862. It was 11 o’clock in the morning, and a fire kept the winter chill away as she celebrated the holiday with friends. There was a bird loose in the room, and as she turned to follow its flap and flutter, the edge of her dress caught fire. At first she tried to tear off the clothes, but the flames spread quickly, and she was unable to escape them. Within two or three minutes, her clothing had entirely burned away, with the exception of her stays, and she had suffered “fearful injuries.” Two doctors were called in, and tended to her until 7 that evening, when she finally died from her wounds. The coroner lamented that crinolines had become a constant theme at inquests.
In November 1861, 22-year-old Mary Anne Winterbotham was a domestic servant working in a doctor’s home in London’s West End. She was cooking dinner when her dress caught fire and she ran out into the street, all alight and screaming for help. A crowd quickly gathered, and tried to tear at her fiery dress, and smother the flames with coats and rugs. Eventually the fire was put out, but Mary Anne, like Anna Maria, had suffered horrific injuries that her body could not withstand. At the coroner’s inquest, the jury found she had died from accidental burns, and added they could not part without expressing their “horror and disgust” at persons who wore crinolines when their duties required them to work with fire.
One wonders — was it easier to express “horror and disgust” for Mary Anne than for Anna Maria, whose ladylike duties required her to sit by a fire on Christmas morning?
Crinolines were constantly in the press in these years. Their wearers were teased and ridiculed for the indecent way such dresses exposed them when they bent forward; they were cautioned about the dangers of moving around in such cumbersome clothing. Just a couple of weeks before Mary Anne Winterbotham’s death, Florence Nightingale wrote that she found it “alarmingly peculiar” that at a time when “female ink-bottles” were so regularly espousing women’s overall usefulness to the world, women were dressing themselves in a way that rendered them useless for any duties at all. She called the crinoline “an absurd and hideous costume,” and wished the registrar-general would state the number of fatalities it had caused.
But still, the trend persisted. In 1869, a piece titled “Who Killed Crinoline?” said good riddance to the fad, and marvelled that it had lasted so long. “Some say crinoline was swept away by a grand tidal wave of common-sense. If so, the wave took about ten years to gather its volume; and we should be glad to know what arguments or recommendations common-sense possessed in the tenth year which it had not in the first.”
We confess to regarding crinoline as at once ugliness and a nuisance; but that the ladies will regard as only the general opinion of us “male creatures,” and they have proved that they do not care about that. The attachment to crinoline must be very strong, for it has stood what it most difficult to withstand—ridicule. Good things are often put down by sarcasm; but here is an ugly thing—a monstrosity—a something which makes the lower half of a lady’s figure look like a damaged diving bell; and the only effect ridicule had upon it, is to cause it to expand to larger and larger proportions, till it threatens to sweep the lords of creation off the pathways, to block them out of church, to hustle them out of places of amusement, and scarcely to leave room for them at home. We should not care so much if a sumptuary law could be passed, prohibiting any but ladies, who are ladies enough not to have anything to do, from wearing crinoline; but everybody takes to the nuisance. Folly is generally spoken of as “light,” but we are inclined to think it must be heavy, for it descends from the highest to the lowest grade of society. This folly commenced with a French Empress, and the other day a beggar woman in crinoline asked alms of us. The vortex a servant maid in the small room of a modest house creates with her wide mailed petticoat is perfectly bewildering, and half alarming. A servant maid has not time to move with the quiet, balloon-like glide, which a lady has leisure for. She must be sharp and quick in her movements; and she drags the chairs, and jostles the table, and puts the dishes in danger, and flounces papers away, as though she was a whirlwind; and when she puts coals on the fire, occasionally carries away the tongs as an appendage to her skirt, the fender only escaping reason of its weight. It says a great deal for the cautiousness of servant girls, that more of them have not fallen victims to crinoline fires. The sufferers in that way have been generally ladies. In factories, the factory lasses, though barefooted, are becrinolined, better fenced than the machinery they work among; and it is a wonder there is not more peril in their skirts than there appears to be. But putting aside ugliness and danger, we have now to contemplate crinolines as plunder baskets. … many crinolines are simply depots for stolen goods. It does not, of course, follow that all people who wear crinolines use them for that purpose; but gives those of predatory dispositions an opportunity of concealing their booty. Lumps of plunder, which would deform the symmetry of the uncrinolined female figure, are carried off without suspicion by the crinolined, pots of jelly and marmalade, pounds of apples and sugar, papers of “sweeties,” are “conveyed” into the capacious receptacle; and we are told that silk, and the finer sorts of yarns, find their way surreptitiously to the same place. Jute, we suppose, has too little value to be in danger. We propose, then, to call crinolines Plunder Baskets. If everybody would do that, we wonder if the ladies would continue to wear them under that name?
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
While researching The Cowkeeper’s Wish, it struck us that many aspects of the story included some connection to music: there were the Welsh lullabies sung by the cowkeeper’s family long after they’d migrated to Red Cross Street in London; the organ that churned out a steady blare of music from a fair set up in a disused burial ground; and the euphonium practiced each night by our great grandfather, Harry Deverill, who played in a Salvation Army band. The Army’s founder, William Booth, believed that “music is to the soul what wind is to the ship, blowing her onwards in the direction in which she is steered.” It transcended class and circumstance, as the Prince of Wales noted at the 1883 opening of the Royal College of Music. “[It speaks] in different tones, perhaps, but with equal force to the cultivated and the ignorant, to the peer and the peasant.”
In the late 1890s, one of the students at the Royal College of Music was a young woman named Olive Christian Malvery, who had come to London from India, and been astounded by the level of poverty she’d seen in the streets. Eager to expose the issue, she was hired in 1904 by Pearson’s Magazine to investigate women’s work in its various forms, and over the next many months, she disguised herself as a barmaid, a factory worker, a flower seller, and so on, and wrote about what it was like to live those lives, if only briefly. On one of her missions, she transformed into a street singer — otherwise known as a “griddler” or even a “needy griddler” — simply by approaching a woman singing in the streets of West Kensington. She claimed to be new to the game, and down on her luck, and asked if she could accompany the woman on her rounds. For several days they went about London together, offering songs for money. The woman seemed to know the best streets by instinct, but was ultimately unreliable because of her penchant for drink.
There was no shortage, though, of street singers with whom Malvery could associate to learn more about the trade, and next was a woman who sang with her three children, attempting to support the family while her husband was in jail. She and her daughters lived in the basement of a dwelling that held 16 families, though originally it had been a single-family home. The mother sometimes sent the girls out to sing alone, if she was ill from drinking, and the eldest daughter sometimes kept a bit of the earnings for herself without her mother knowing. “How they loved and clung to one another,” wrote Malvery, “those forlorn atoms for whom the big world had no place!” They were clever at avoiding the school inspector — a common skill among families who relied on income from school-age children — and liked to tell Malvery stories of their eccentric neighbours: a “crippled” man who’d chased one of the daughters when she’d stolen his cane; and a blind man who “saw enough for three.” They were street musicians too — one played the whistle, and the other sang hymns.
There were others who seemed more astute at making the life work for them: one foggy night as she walked home, Malvery came upon a young woman of 20 or so, singing and playing guitar outside a public house. She called herself a “chanter” and said she had been supporting her mother and brother for four years with her earnings. She liked her life, she told Malvery, and on the whole she was well-treated by the people she encountered during her rounds. Every night, no matter the weather, she stood in front of taverns with her guitar, singing. Visiting her at home, Malvery found a tiny but clean room, with books and magazines and flowers, and the brother, pale and sickly, making a cardboard model of a church. The place had “an air of refinement” that astonished her; but as she was discovering through the work she’d taken up: “One sees things … with altogether different eyes when one lives among people as one of themselves.”
Malvery’s articles, a series she called “The Heart of Things,” were eventually collected in a book titled The Soul Market, which one reviewer deemed “more interesting than any novel, for there are life-stories on every page. … Humour and pity, tragedy and mirth, tread in each other’s steps.” The book included theatrical photos of her as a flower seller, and a server “in a cheap coffee shop,” a sweet shop, and so on. Judging from the photo below, she seems to have embraced the theatricality of her project. What would her contacts have thought if they’d discovered what she was doing? There is an air of condescension when she pities “the miserable creatures I have been traveling among,” and claims “my heart was sore with so much contact with poverty and misery.” Yet her compassion rings true. In subsequent posts we’ll look at Malvery again, as well as other wandering philanthropists who masqueraded among the poor “to touch the heart of things.” For obvious reasons, first-hand accounts of impoverished street singers, flower sellers, and costermongers are rare — but stories like Malvery’s take us just a little closer.
“The Royal College of Music,” Gloucester Journal, 12 May, 1883.
Our great grandfather, Harry Deverill, began his working life with a shop of his own, an oil and colourman in a time when paints and pigments were mixed by hand and people bought lamp oil, stove polish, waxes and soap from their neighbourhood trader. The entrepreneurial spirit could be said to have been in his blood: his mother had tried her hand with a toy shop selling rag dolls and tin soldiers and wooden puzzles, and his father had gone bankrupt as a grocer only scant years after such a situation would have landed him in debtor’s prison. Harry too eventually moved on to take a regular job, but above them in the family tree was Harry’s grandmother, Mary Anna Bell Taylor, whose efforts, with odds stacked against her, proved somewhat more successful.
She and William Walker Taylor married in 1836 at St. Alphege Church, Greenwich, and she signed with a bold press of the pen on the line beneath his in the parish register. For the first two years of their married life they lived in Greenwich, but by the time their third child was born in 1839 they had moved to Lambeth, and in the handful of records that mention William Walker Taylor, he is consistently listed as an “engineer,” although in the merchant service rather than the navy. The family lived first in a “barge house” home where the sparkle of the sun on the Thames might have made up for the sucking mud at low tide and the stink of fish and raw sewage.
Within a year or so they’d moved back a few yards from the river into a curving street called Bishop’s Walk, across from the high walls that blocked the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace and garden. Like most couples just beginning married life, Mary Anna and William surely anticipated several decades together, and had plans. If William’s work took him from home now and again, Mary Anna was a capable young woman who could read and write, and could easily manage the household while he was gone.
Then in the chill days of autumn, 1846, 30-year-old Mary Anna became a widow with five children under the age of 10 dependent upon her. Unlike her Southwark counterpart in our family tree, the so-called Lazy Mary, Mary Anna did not succumb to the barriers in front of her, or end up in a workhouse, a “pauper charwoman.” Instead, she took stock of her situation and began a new chapter of her life. Twenty years later when Belle Otis wrote her book, Diary of a Milliner, she penned words that might have come from Mary Anna’s lips. “I am left a widow with the necessity upon me of getting my own living, and an abundance of vitality and energy wherewith to accomplish it. There is a something telling me it is for my good to be doing something. Doing! that is the word, – let the action be suited to it.”
Mary Anna did take action. She applied to send her oldest boy, George, to the Greenwich Royal Hospital School, where, according to Lloyd’s Illustrated News, “the candidates must be free from impediment of speech, or other infirmity. They derive their claims of admission from the comparative merits, services, and sufferings, of the father in the Royal Navy; regard being also had to the number and destitution of the family. The vacancies are filled up strictly on this principle; the admissions being carefully selected from the list of candidates by three of the principal officers of the Hospital, subject to the approval of the Governor.” The school must also have considered boys like George whose fathers served as merchant seamen, as many like George appear on the roles, or perhaps William Walker Taylor was seconded to the Royal Navy at some point, although no record exists to confirm.
Upon acceptance by the school of the eldest, Mary Anna promptly applied to send her second son, Charles, but for some unknown reason that application was denied. Instead, Charles went to live with his grandmother, and with her three youngest children Mary Anna returned to Greenwich where her brother had a tailor’s shop. Their father Isaiah had been a tailor, a member of both the Freemasons and the Associated Tailors’ Benefit Society, and when he died in 1831 he’d left Mary Anna and her brother his collection of books, and admonished them to “share and share alike.” That her father had left a will and goods to bequeath suggests he had at least small means, and in this, certainly, Mary Anna was already a step up the ladder from poor “Lazy Mary” in Southwark. No doubt Mary Anna did as Belle Otis would do, and considered her options, given that “woman in her present status is not fitted to undertake all kinds of business. Her manner of dress, and other habits, would make it rather inconvenient for her to go to the mast-head in a gale, or handle goods in a wholesale grocery establishment. She has as much as she can attend to out-of-doors to hold up her trailing garments, adjust her sun-shade, and make a graceful appearance…” And, like Belle, Mary Anna must have come to the conclusion that while she alone could not “change the social condition of woman,” she could instead “make the best of it.” So next door to her brother’s tailor shop in Turnpin Lane, she set up as a milliner, crafting tidy bonnets trimmed with lace and pleated fabric and fastened to the head with ribbons, as well as the more fashionable hats with narrow brims that dipped down in front and in back, and were secured by pins instead of ties. She soon had enough business that she employed an assistant, and took in her younger sister to help as a domestic.
According to the 1843 pamphlet The Guide to Trade: The Dress-Maker and The Milliner, such success was unusual without prior training. Most would have had to serve an apprenticeship, so maybe Mary Anna, daughter and sister of a tailor, had had that advantage prior to setting up on her own. If not, then perhaps she was simply what the Guide described as “an uncommon sort … clever, dexterous, observant, extremely earnest to learn, and so useful…” Mary Anna was lucky to have such a craft. Except for the very poor – those like our Lazy Mary – who worked as chars or fur-pullers or jam girls, and for whom so-called sweated labour was the norm, young women, widowed or not, were mostly unwelcome in the working world of men in the mid-Victorian era. Milliner was one of the few occupations a woman could undertake without tarnishing her respectability.
Yet such a concern does not seem to have troubled our Mary Anna. By the time she married her second husband, James Batten, she’d already borne him two children. Her new man was a “linen draper” from Whitechapel, so it’s not hard to imagine how they might have met, he flogging his fabric wares and she, as a milliner, and her brother, as a tailor, his ready customers. But James Batten seemed anxious to try new things, and while he changed careers several times, her name appeared regularly in the postal directories: “Batten, Mary (Mrs), milliner.”
Then finally, by 1871, Mr Batten fashioned himself into a neck-tie manufacturer, and this time the entrepreneurial Mary Anna became his business partner. Whether they were successful finding customers for their bat-wing bow ties, silk Ascots, and puffy cravats isn’t known, but James Batten didn’t live out the decade, and his death seems also to have spelled the end of Mary Anna’s commercial endeavours. In 1891 she made her final census appearance, listed on the schedule as a 74-year-old widow living in her daughter’s home. Under the heading “Occupation” the census-taker wrote “Dependent on Children,” and while the statement was no doubt correct, it remains a somewhat sad and inadequate notation about a woman who worked hard to make her own way in a difficult world.