Singing in the Streets of London

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

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

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

singing in the streets

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

***

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

“I am left a widow…”

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.

Bishops Walk
Bishop’s Walk in Lambeth. Photo courtesy of http://www.victorianlondon.org

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.

Entrance to the Greenwich Royal Hospital School
Greenwich Royal Hospital School, where George Taylor became a student. Photo courtesy National Maritime Museum.

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.

Milliner's card
Mary Anna might have used a trade card like this one to advertise her business, and show off the kinds of hats she could create for her customers.

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.”

Cravat necktie
The long fashionable cravat necktie. Sketch by David Ring for Europeana Fashions.

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.

Sources

Suicide of a Workhouse Midwife

hubert von herkomer eventide
This 1878 painting, Eventide, by Hubert von Herkomer, depicts elderly women residents of the Westminster Union Workhouse.

Much of The Cowkeeper’s Wish takes place in Red Cross Street, now Redcross Way, in what was then a poor neighbourhood in London, England, just south of the Thames. Our family lived in the street from the 1840s to the early 1900s, and was well acquainted with the workhouse nearby. Our great-great grandmother, Mary Jones Evans, moved in after her husband died, ostensibly because she was too lazy to take care of herself now that he was gone.

That’s the story that has filtered down over the years, but surely the true reason was more complicated. The anecdote nonetheless reveals the disdain people often felt — feel! — for those in need of a helping hand. Many so-called “inmates” of the workhouse were women much like Mary: poor, aging, and widowed, with few options for bettering their lives.

St George the Martyr workhouse is visible in the lower left corner of Charles Booth’s map, which coloured areas according their poverty levels. Black was the lowest class — “vicious and semi-criminal” — and dark blue indicated the very poor, “in chronic want.”

She was there in March of 1897 when Elizabeth Legge, a Scottish woman in her mid-forties, committed suicide. Elizabeth was employed as a workhouse midwife, and was also a widow, though of better means than our Mary, it would seem. Her husband had been a doctor, according to inquest testimony, and since his death she’d worked at a number of Scottish hospitals, and come to the workhouse late in 1896. She’d paid to have a uniform made, and had been engaged for some four months as a midwifery nurse, but didn’t enjoy the job and complained to her friend, a clerk named Arthur French, that not only was she herself treated shoddily, she abhorred the way her co-workers treated the inmates.

“She said she did not like the conversation … which was always about sending inmates to prison who did not behave themselves. She did not like to hear that sort of thing and she very often left the table in consequence of such conversation going on.”

The workhouse master wasn’t happy with her either, and in March she was given her notice, and asked to return her uniform. This she thought grossly unfair, according to French, since she had paid to have the uniform made.

Another witness — an inmate named Mary Ann Prater, who like the midwife and our great-great grandmother was a mid-forties widow — testified that she brought a cup of tea to Elizabeth’s room at about 7:25 one morning, and when she turned to fetch a spoon and some sugar, Elizabeth called out “Goodbye, Prater!” and began to swig from a bottle of carbolic acid she’d had hidden in her bed.

The workhouse porter was called, and tried to administer mustard water. He could hear “a gurgling noise” in her throat, and “sent messengers in all directions for doctors.” Two came immediately that morning, and pumped her stomach. But it was not until 5 o’clock that evening that she was sent to nearby Guy’s Hospital, and the article doesn’t specify how she fared during the day, or why there was such a delay in admitting her.

The use of carbolic acid for suicide was prevalent in the 1890s, especially among women, since the substance was easily obtainable “from any huscksterer, oilman or druggist,” according to the Lancet medical journal. It had been used as an antiseptic since the 1860s, and the role it played in “self murders” had steadily risen. By now, doctors had seen so many of these types of “painful and cruel” deaths that there were calls to label carbolic acid a poison “put aside from general use and only employed by skilled hands or under professional direction.” Of course, with those stipulations, midwife Elizabeth Legge would still have had access.

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

“I am house physician at Guy’s Hospital,” Dr. Wilson Tyson testified. “I saw deceased directly after her admission. … She was conscious, but in a state of collapse. The limbs were curled, the pulse was rapid and feeble, and she was breathing rapidly. She said she had taken carbolic acid. An antidote was given her, but it had no visible effect. Deceased died at 7:15 in the evening” — no doubt a distressing 12 hours from the time she first swallowed the acid. “I asked her why she took the poison, and she said she did not know.”

Mary Ann Prater said that Elizabeth had been “very strange in her manner for the last five or six weeks. I and the other women noticed it. We thought she was not altogether in a sound state of mind the last week. She seemed to ‘give way’ and to be overexcited.” In answer to Arthur French’s suggestion that Elizabeth had been upset about the way she and others were treated at the workhouse, Prater said she’d never heard her complain, and that she hadn’t cared at all about giving up the uniform.

So what was true? Why would French say she had cared if she hadn’t? Would Prater have been instructed, or even just urged, by the workhouse master to downplay the reason for Elizabeth’s unhappiness? There’s no way to know the real story now, but all of the articles about Elizabeth’s death mention the uniform, and the fact that she was out of work. Did she fear what would become of her now that she’d lost her job and had no uniform to bring to the next potential place of employment? Did she have so little money that the cost of having a new uniform made was beyond her reach? Far from Scotland, with no relatives, no husband, and few friends, did she fear the workhouse would be home from now on, into her old age, as it was for Mary Jones Evans and Mary Ann Prater? The South London Chronicle hints that there was more to the story, but it is long gone now.

1895-Dictionary-Phrenolog
From Webster’s Academic Dictionary, 1895

“The Coroner said he would like to mention publicly that there were witnesses present who could show that the deceased was in difficulties, which was one additional reason why she committed the act; but no purpose would be served by going into that.” A strange decision — though technically a coroner’s inquest was held to determine the cause of death, and the reason (if infinitely more interesting) was perhaps less important.

At least one of the jurymen, however, was curious about reason, and offered up his own theory. He was familiar with phrenology, which linked specific areas of the brain with character and mental ability. It had been a popular concept in Britain in the early Victorian years, and though it had long been discredited as a scientific theory, it still had pockets of followers in the 1890s. The “phrenological juror” had seen Elizabeth’s body in the mortuary, and noticed that the “organ of sensitiveness” was well developed; such people, he believed, would be sensitive to things ordinary people would not observe. “People ought to be very careful what they say to such persons.” In his opinion, Elizabeth Legge’s “vitativeness” was entirely absent, which meant she had no “want of life.” His comments evoked nothing more than laughter, and a mocking “Oh! Ah! Yes!” from the coroner, an educated man who likely had no time for pseudomedicine.

The jury returned the vague but all too common verdict of “Suicide whilst temporarily insane,” and Elizabeth Legge, compassionate widowed midwife, was heard of no more.

Sources

  • “Southwark Nurse’s Sad Suicide.” South London Chronicle,  27 March, 1897.
  • “The Fatal Record of Carbolic Acid.” Alfred Edwin Harris, The Lancet, 28 November, 1896.
  • “Suicide of a Dundee Doctor’s Widow.” Dundee Courier, 25 March, 1897.

The Fur-Puller’s Child

aesop's fables
A Victorian edition of Aesop’s Fables.

While researching The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we first came upon the term “fur-puller” as we combed through the notebooks of Charles Booth, who sent his social investigators out to document London poverty in the late 1800s. Booth and his workers inevitably visited Red Cross Street in the Borough, where our family lived, and where the people had jobs like bottle washer, rag sorter, seed packer and collar stitcher. There was “fur-puller” too — when Booth’s man spotted such a  woman engaged in her work, he jotted in his notebook: “one middle-aged woman pulling fur at her open window, air full of fluff and herself covered with it. Spoke in shaky husky voice, ‘Must do it to live you know!’”

She must have gone to the window for a much-needed breath of air, for according to the 1889 publication Toilers in London, fur-pulling was horrible, hazardous work. Many girls and women earned a living this way, working at home, where they could also look after little ones. They sat on low stools and held hare and rabbit skins between their knees, rubbing the down off with a knife, and then collecting it and returning it to the furrier for use in beds, sofas and pillows; the skins became cloaks and jackets. “The work is very unpleasant. … The down gets into [the fur-puller’s] nose and mouth. Her hair and clothes are white with it. She generally suffers from what she calls ‘breathlessness,’ for her lungs are filled with the fine down, and she is always more or less choked.”

The slightest draft caused the down to fly everywhere, and so windows and doors were usually kept closed, even in the stifling summer months. But the fluff nevertheless found its way into eyes, mouths, and noses, and clung to surfaces in the dank rooms where the work was done. The greasy skins, piled on beds and tables, reeked as they decayed. If the work was tucked away at the end of the day, evidence of it surely remained. In her 1906 work The Soul Market, Olive Christian Malvery called fur-pulling “a wretched, ill-paid, unhealthy trade,” but admitted the fur-pullers themselves didn’t seem bothered. “‘Dust? lor, we don’t mind that! We eats it, drinks it, and sleeps on it!'”

From the popular Victorian manual Chavasse’s Advice to a Wife by Pye Henry Chavasse, who also penned Advice to a Mother

In March of 1888, a coroner’s inquest was held into the death of a baby boy named Frederick Spinks Phillips, just nine months old. His mother was a fur-puller, and worked at home. “The fluffs from the skins being considered as detrimental to the child’s health,” she sent the boy out to be cared for each day by the widowed Elizabeth Nash, who had also worked in fur-pulling but had recently given up the job due to health problems. Nash had been caring for Frederick for about five weeks by the time he died, but she’d found him “troublesome,” according to an account in the London Daily News, and didn’t want to take him anymore. But day after day, Frederick’s mother continued to bring her baby boy so that she could carry on with her trade at home.

Nash testified that on the day of his death, Frederick had seemed ill. She’d put him to bed and gone out to the pub for some rum, though not enough to make her drunk. “On returning home, she saw the child was in a fit. She dashed some cold water in his face, but as that did not bring him to, she put him into a pail of cold water with his clothes on to see if that would revive him.” If she had done wrong she was sorry, she told the jury; she did not intend to drown the child, though she admitted, upon further questioning, that the baby had been “dipped in head-first.”

The constable called to the scene deduced she had been drinking. Two other witnesses said yes, she had drunk, but she was not intoxicated until much later that day, hours after the death had occurred. A doctor testified that little Frederick had died from “dentition convulsion” — yes, teething — rather than drowning, but that “the plunging of the child into cold water” had certainly accelerated his death. In the end, the jury returned a verdict of “death by misadventure,” and the coroner severely censured Elizabeth Nash.

Did she go on to care for other children? And did Frederick’s mother continue with her work? The article doesn’t say. But it does tell us that the coroner found this “one of the most extraordinary cases he ever remembered.”

Sources

Descended of Rogues and Thieves

Benjamin McMurdo shopbreaking
Benjamin McMurdo was arrested for breaking and entering and theft, along with a gang of four other boys. Photo courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

Our great great aunt, Jennie Evans, was a Southwark native, born and bred in the Borough, the granddaughter of a Welsh cowkeeper. Jennie married a shoemaker named Richard Vanson, also from Southwark, but unlike his wife, Richard was only the second in his immediate family to be born in London. His roots were in the gently rolling hills and patchwork fields of Barham, Kent, where his father Stephen was the firstborn son of a farm labourer. There were other Vansons in the area, probably relatives, and in the village churchyard the inscription on a headstone gives some insight into the character of at least one of them, perhaps the eponym of our own Southwark-born Richard: “To the memory of Richard Vanson who died June 30th 1828 aged 25 years. In simple guise let this best praise appear. Stranger, an honest man lies buried here.”

There’s no reason to suspect that our Richard was anything less than honest, but the same cannot be said of his father Stephen. Perhaps hoping to escape rural poverty, a young Stephen left the small village of Barham and took a job as a footman in the home of Thomas Barker Bass, a divorced attorney-at-law, in the seaside town of Dover. Stephen’s name appears on the 1851 census beneath that of his employer and two other “general servants.” How long he held his post or why he left it isn’t known, but records place him on HMS Beagle (not of Darwin fame) at some point during the Crimean War, awarded the Medal for the Crimea. Perhaps drawing on his experience as a footman, Stephen was a gun room steward, serving in the junior officer’s mess on Beagle. On the same medal list for HMS Beagle was Ordinary Seaman James Walsh. When the war ended the two young veterans drifted east searching for work, but within a few months things had spiraled out of control.

October 1856 found Stephen and James in the city of Hereford, twenty six kilometres from the Welsh border, their names recorded more infamously than they would have liked. The story of what occurred appeared in the Hereford Times: “Daring Burglary in Hereford – Clever Capture of the Burglars.” Stephen and James were two of the gang. They and another young man, John Davies, all “strangers to [the] city,” had taken rooms at Powell’s lodging house in Berrington Street, and perhaps already had had a target in mind for their dastardly deed. Nearby was the shop of a watchmaker and jeweller, with a residence above, and an hour or so after midnight on October 9th, the would-be thieves slunk to the back of the premises and cut away a wire grate, squeezing themselves into the kitchen. Stephen used a skeleton key to gain access to the shop, and the robbery might have come off undetected but for the pitch darkness of the room. James Walsh struck a match, and as luck would have it, out in the street on his nightly rounds was Sergeant James Griffiths of the city police, who spied the light right away. He knocked on the door, calling the shop owner’s name, but the light was immediately extinguished and no reply came. He hurried around to the back of the shop and saw the three men run from the building and make their escape through the pig market. He shouted for help and gave chase, apprehending Stephen in a granary, while another policeman nabbed James Walsh. John Davies made it back to the lodging house but the police caught up with him there, and in custody at the station house, the men expressed remorse on learning the shop belonged to a widow. Despite being desperate, they’d never have done the job, Stephen claimed, had they known their victim was a widow.

Ellen Woodman hard labour age 11
Just 11 years old, red-headed Ellen Woodman received 7 days of hard labour for stealing some iron. Photo courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

At the Assizes in December, a week before Christmas, Stephen and his accomplices stood before Mr. Baron Watson, who listened to their claim that they’d been “weary of a vagabond life,” and with the spoils of the burglary they’d hoped to “set up in a respectable way of business, and hereafter lead a life of honesty and good conduct.” The judge advised them to accomplish such a “praiseworthy object … by honest means” noting that “he had a very strong suspicion that at least one of the prisoners had been engaged in such work before.” He then sentenced the three men to one year hard labour. For Stephen, left waiting was Ellen Douglass, ten years his junior and just sixteen, pregnant with their first child Annie, who would be born in Old Down, Gloucestershire, in 1857 while her father was in jail.

Likely no mug shot ever existed of Stephen Vanson, but it was around the time of Stephen’s troubles that Bedford Prison governor Robert Evans Roberts came up with the idea of photographing convicts as a means of documenting habitual criminals. Some of the images exist today, along with details of their crimes and punishment. Little distinction was made between children and adults, and there was no sympathy for the situations prompting the crimes – hunger, homelessness, sickness, unemployment. Stephen was twenty six when he received his sentence of hard labour, but a similar punishment was frequently meted out to children, as the photographs and their details attest.

James Donneley age 16 two months for theft
Aged 16, young James Donneley had been in and out of prison several times when he was sentenced to two months for stealing some shirts. Photo courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

Whether Stephen was influenced by the unsavoury types he met in prison, or whether he was himself of that character we can’t know, but in 1859, again a free man, Stephen and his young family of Ellen Douglass and daughter Annie appear in Merthyr-Tydfil, Wales, a place of ill repute. Merthyr-Tydfil was one of the most notorious districts in Wales, nicknamed “China,” probably in reference to Britain’s so-called “opium wars” with China around this time. The propaganda of the day reinforced the idea of China as the enemy, a place of dangerous foreigners, and a no-man’s land. Merthyr-Tydfil’s “China” was a den of thieves, rogues and prostitutes, and respectable people entered at their peril.  Bounded by water and a row of large dwellings, entrance to the district was through a narrow arch, and even the police did not go there.

But Stephen and Ellen did, and lived in Merthyr-Tydfil long enough to have two more children born there. The South Wales Police Museum explains what might have attracted our Vansons, writing that the district saw a steady stream of jobseekers, but those who couldn’t find the work they sought also could not afford to go back where they came from, and many resorted to begging and stealing to scrape together a living. Stephen seems to have learned his lesson in Hereford, though, for there are no further records to suggest he was ever again anything other than a poor hawker, and Ellen a “hawker’s wife.” When they finally married in 1862 it was at St. Saviour’s church in the Borough, Southwark, where they began a new, and sadly short chapter of their lives.

Sources

  • Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums
  • South Wales Police Museum
  • “Daring Burglary in Hereford  – Clever Capture of the Burglars.” Hereford Times, 11 October, 1856
  • “Capture of Gang of Burglars in Hereford.” Hereford Journal, 15 October, 1856
  • “The Burglary at Mrs. Lamberts’ Shop.” Hereford Times, 18 October, 1856
  • “Original Mugshots Show the Faces of Victorian Crime.” The Times, 13 February, 2013
  • Barham Village History www.barham-kent.org.uk

 

 

Two Flower Sellers, Poison, and a Mean Old Man

London flower sellers, courtesy New York Public Library

Having been a flower seller of sorts myself in years past, I was curious about Victorian-era flower sellers. A rough world, really, despite the beautiful and fragrant wares. In his 1851 work London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew wrote that many of the flower girls on the streets of London were of “an immoral character,” and worked as prostitutes as well; but others were young children, “very persevering, … who will run along, barefooted, with their ‘Please, gentleman, do buy my flowers. Poor little girl!’ — ‘Please, kind lady, buy my violets. O, do!'” He estimated there were between 400 and 800 flower sellers on the streets, but said it was impossible to be certain of a number, because when oranges were cheap and tasty, the flower girls sold those instead — or they sold watercress, or onions.

By 1889, the publication Toilers in London put the number of city flower sellers at 2,000. They had not been a fixture on London streets for long, but had become plentiful so quickly that it was hard to imagine the metropolis without them. They stood in the main thoroughfares, and at the entrances to hospitals and cemeteries, and they sold to people of all classes, even “the poorest and the lowest. … The love of flowers is one of the most hopeful symptoms in the condition of the very poor in London.”

Flower sellers in Covent Garden, from the 1877 book Street Life in London, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith. Courtesy LSE Digital Library.

With so many sellers on the streets, competition was fierce. Newspapers through the late 1800s carry mentions of flower sellers getting in drunken brawls with their rivals, blocking roadways with their laden baskets, and pushing flowers into people’s faces to urge them to buy. It would seem there were too many sellers and not enough buyers, which perhaps had something to do with the bizarre story that unfolded in Hackney in June of 1891.

One Friday, late in the afternoon, a man approached a young girl named Ethel Roundtree. He was carrying a small paper bag and asked, “Will you give these two buns to that woman standing on the corner selling flowers?” Presumably Ethel thought nothing of the request, and brought the bag to flower seller Jane Bass, who was standing outside the Railway Tavern. The treats inside looked like Bath buns — normally sweet, sticky and delicious — but when Bass broke one open to have a taste, “some yellow stuff come out of it. … It smelt nasty.” She asked the girl to tell her who had given her the bag, but the man was gone now, and Ethel could only describe him.

Bass brought the buns to the Hackney police station, and an inspector had them analyzed by Dr. Henry Gould, who confirmed they contained phosphorus paste. The police sought out Ethel Roundtree, and she accompanied two constables to the local pub where she pointed out the man who’d given her the bag. She had no trouble finding him, for he was what the papers called “a repulsive-looking elderly man” named Patrick Costello (elsewhere Costella), whose wife sold flowers in the same area as Bass.

“We are police officers,” one of the men told Costello, “and are going to take you into custody for attempting to kill a woman named Jane Bass by administering to her a quantity of phosphorus paste in two bath buns.” In response, Costello claimed, “I never bought no buns.” But on his person police discovered “a box of zinc ointment, some blue stone, and [a] little box containing phosphorus paste marked ‘poison.'”

At the trial, Dr. Gould stated the buns contained enough phosphorus to “destroy life,” and said he could see that a hole had been made in the bottom of each bun and the paste pushed into it.  Though Costello denied the act, and claimed the phosphorus found on him was something he used for his bad leg, the doctor retorted that phosphorus was used to kill vermin — “it is not recommended for bad legs.” Had Bass eaten the buns, she would have experienced a burning sensation in her throat and abdomen, severe abdominal pain, luminescent vomit and diarrhea, shock, jaundice, hemorrhage, renal damage — the list goes on — and if not death then serious, irreversible health problems.

If the case against him wasn’t bad enough, a police officer testified that just days before the buns incident, Costello had approached him and complained about Bass, who was standing outside the Railway Tavern. “He came to me and asked me to remove Bass, as she was stopping his customers, and taking his trade away—I refused to do it, and told him she had the same privilege as he had to stand here—he said he and his wife had stood there for a number of years, and the other had only just come, occasionally on a Saturday—next evening, Sunday, he came to me about seven, there were several on the opposite side selling flowers, and he asked me to remove them, and keep them further from him, and if I did so he would make it all right—I refused.”

The Flower Sellers of London by Gustave Dore, 1875.

Once again, poverty is at the core of this story. Costello was no doubt desperate for the money his wife could earn in the vicinity Bass shared. He did indeed have a bad leg — workhouse records show him entering with such a condition years before the poisoning took place, so perhaps there was little work available to him; he was in pain; he was in dire straits. But he was nasty too, whatever had made him so. Newspapers reporting on the case claimed he’d attempted the same poisoning trick before, and that he’d often been in trouble with the law for drunk and disorderly conduct. In fact, just one year before the buns incident, he was convicted for beating his wife:

“Patrick Costello, … a flower seller, of Compton street, Soho, was charged with a brutal assault on his wife, an aged woman. The prosecutrix, who sells flowers at the Hackney Railway Station, spoke of a lengthened experience of brutality at the hands of her husband, adding that he had kicked and stabbed her and already suffered imprisonment in consequence. On the present occasion he struck her a violent blow in the face, and threatened to murder her. The Magistrate said it was an aggravated assault, and sent the prisoner to gaol for six months’ hard labour.”

One wonders about “Mrs. Costello,” who never gets mentioned by name. It is so often difficult to trace women’s stories because their identity disappears in the shadows of their husbands. What did she make of her husband’s crimes, against others but also herself? Patrick Costello was sentenced to nine months for this latest act, so she would be free of him for a time, if that was how it felt to her. Did she quarrel with Jane Bass for the best spot near the railway station? Or did they sell in peaceful proximity, baskets brimming with lavender and roses, enjoying the respite until he returned?

Sources

The Fighting Parson

One of the many colourful stripes that made up the fabric of the Borough in Southwark in the late 1890s was the curate at St. Saviour’s Church known as “the fighting parson.” Charles Pierrepont Edwards was a clergyman who confronted problems head on, and made the papers now and again for his scuffles with local hooligans. He relished the chance to show his “muscular Christianity,” and it was no surprise to see him rush from his house on Newcomen Street, and “place his thews and sinews at the service of the temporal powers.”

Mersea Museum IA004390
Charles Pierrepont Edwards, curate at St. Saviour’s, Southwark and then vicar of West Mersea. Photo credit to the Mersea Museum http://www.merseamuseum.org.uk

Lloyd’s Weekly recounted the court appearance of a fellow who’d apparently stolen a bottle of whiskey and a glass from the White Horse pub on Union Street. The prisoner was a big man, and powerfully built, but he stood in the dock with his head bandaged, and the worse for wear. Testimony in court revealed that Pierrepont Edwards had been holding a confirmation class when he heard the shrill of a whistle, and he ran into the street to rescue a potman being accosted by the accused. The parson tackled the would-be whiskey thief and held him down until the police could take over. The magistrate eyed the bandaged prisoner and decided he’d been sufficiently punished by the parson, and let the man go. On another occasion, kids were playing in Newcomen Street when an old woman stepped into the road to avoid them and was trampled by a horse-drawn van. Hearing her screams, Pierrepont Edwards burst from his house, and carried the woman to the hospital. It was too late to save her, but he was no less lauded as a hero.

He’d been born in 1864 in Erith, Kent, the son of a gentleman. His family had fallen on hard times when he was just a boy, and he’d left school to make his way as a clerk at the West India Docks, so perhaps he’d learned his fighting skills from the dockworkers. Eventually, he’d won a scholarship to a theological college, and taken holy orders, but he’d always felt “the most intense sympathy for the poor. ‘They know it,’ he claimed, ‘and they come to me for advice and assistance in all circumstances. I have been called out in the night to murders and fires, to bail out husbands arrested for wife beating, to accidents and disasters of all kinds. So far as I can,’ he vowed, ‘I live their life.'” And though the roughs of the Borough were the ones he tussled with, even they developed a grudging respect for the curate’s “pugilistic ability.”

Yet despite his fame throughout the Borough, or even because of it, Pierrepont Edwards left for a provincial vicarage, taking a substantial salary cut to move to the village of West Mersea, Essex. Before he left Southwark, the police presented him with a silver tea service, saying they were “sincerely sorry that so able a recruit to the forces of law and order [was] leaving the vicinity.” Later, he served as a chaplain in the Great War, was awarded the Military Cross, and worked for a while with the War Graves Commission, but returned to Mersea to live out his days. He was never far from controversy, though, and when he died the notices cited his “interesting career,” recalling that he “invariably wore a top hat, … was exceedingly quick at repartee, … and proved more than a match for many hecklers.”

Pierrepont Edwards in Gallipoli
Pierrepont Edwards, right, in Gallipoli, 1919. Image © IWM (Q14313)

Sources

  •  Mersea Museum, Mersea Island, Essex
  • “The Fighting Parson.” Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 3 April, 1898
  • “London Week by Week.” Leeds Times, 17 September, 1898
  • “The Fighting Parson.” South Wales Echo, 6 September, 1898
  • Imperial War Museum, Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection
  • “The Fighting Parson.” Royal Cornwall Gazette, 7 April, 1898

Inspector of Nuisances

Chapter 1 - Cowkeeper Benjamin Jones
Our cowkeeper, Benjamin Jones, likely taken in the 1860s, some time after his first run-in with the Inspector of Nuisances.

Some Victorian occupations have such colourful names you just can’t resist finding out more. That was the case when we came upon the term “Inspector of Nuisances.” John Errington was the first such inspector for Southwark, and from the 1850s  on he prowled the streets south of the Thames sniffing out foul smells and unsanitary conditions, and bringing them to the attention of the Medical Officer of Health. We first discovered him in 1855, when he accused our great-great-great grandfather, Benjamin Jones, of keeping his stables in a deplorable condition and allowing dung and filth to accumulate in his yard.

Twenty years later Errington was still a thorn in Benjamin’s side; he’d had complaints from a local business to which Benjamin supplied milk, so he hid in the office of that establishment one day, and when Benjamin arrived with his delivery, Errington popped out and declared himself, and took the sample away for testing. It was discovered to be more than half water, and deemed an egregious case.

St Saviour's Board of Works copy
Courtesy the Wellcome Library

Scanning through newspapers, and through health reports available at the Wellcome Library, it seems this was a typical part of Errington’s work. If you sold bad fish or rotten cherries, he’d be after you if he found out about it, for his mission was “the discovery and abatement of nuisances” and the protection of the public’s health. And in an area so steeped in poverty, there was plenty to put that health in danger.

In June of 1866, he received a complaint about an “intolerable effluvium” coming from a house in Gravel Lane. Upon inspecting, he discovered the premises belonged to an undertaker named Mr. Hodges, who was in possession of a female body dead some three weeks. The corpse was rapidly decomposing, and Errington found the stench unbearable. Neighbours were decidedly anxious.

But Hodges claimed he was in a difficult position. A fortnight earlier, two sisters had come to him and asked him to remove their mother’s body from the workhouse, where she had died a week before; he took their word that they would pay the transport and burial expenses, and fetched the body and put it in his shed. Later the sisters denied having promised to pay him, and he was a poor man, he told Errington, and could not afford to pay the expenses himself. So the body sat there, decomposing further each day.

When the sanitary committee met to discuss the issue, Mr. Hodges was ordered to bury the woman at once, or face charges. He could “make the relatives pay the necessary expenses afterwards,” though there was no suggestion as to how he might do that, given it seems he’d already tried. And with their mother finally interred, what motivation would there be for the sisters to pay?

So many questions arise from this one little story. Under the Anatomy Act, unclaimed bodies of workhouse inmates, prisoners and so on could be used for medical research. Was this why the dead woman’s daughters wanted their mother removed from the workhouse? And did they wish to avoid the stigma of a so-called pauper burial? Was Hodges telling the whole truth as he knew it? Were the sisters as heartless as Hodges suggests? Or so poor that they couldn’t afford to bury their mother, despite best intentions? And if so, why didn’t the parish cover the costs in the end? Presumably they would have if she’d been left unclaimed at the workhouse.

Sadly the topic of bodies unburied wasn’t new to Errington and the Medical Officer of Health for whom he worked. Dr. Robert Bianchi, in hearing Hodges’ tale, reflected on another Southwark death two years earlier: a family had vacated their lodgings and left a body behind. Bianchi himself paid for the burial, “as no one else would do it.”

Sources

  • “A Dead Body Unburied for Three Weeks.” South London Press, 16 June, 1866
  • Medical Officer of Health Reports, Southwark. Wellcome Library