Jennie and George and Grace: Down a Rabbit Hole

rabbitIf you’ve gone down rabbit holes in search of elusive ancestors and found yourself in a maze-like world of tunnels and loops and switchbacks, you’ll understand the tale I’m about to share. Those of you who’ve read The Cowkeeper’s Wish will know who Jennie (Jane) is: one of the cowkeeper’s granddaughters, married in 1890 to a shoemaker named Richard Vanson, and our great-great aunt. Some of the Vanson story we’ve told in the book, and some in a previous post. They’re an interesting bunch. From a brush with the law to their connection with one of Jack the Ripper’s victims, this part of our family tree has skeletons aplenty in its closet, and I stumbled across a few more while trying to puzzle out what had become of Jennie and her daughters after Jennie’s husband Richard died of tuberculosis in 1911.

Jennie Evans Vanson
Jennie (Jane) Evans Vanson, circa 1904

For people of our family’s social standing, it wasn’t easy to be a widow in the early days of the 20th century, before pensions and social safety nets, and it was even harder if you had children to worry about. Two months after her husband’s death, forty-year-old Jennie wrote on the census form in a messy scrawl that she lived at 30 Burdett Chambers in Lambeth (the same address she’d shared with her shoemaker husband), along with two of her daughters: eighteen-year-old Florence, a tailoress, and the youngest, Ada, who was four. Jennie reported working as an office cleaner, and although she also wrote answers to the questions regarding her years of marriage and children, someone, presumably the enumerator, stroked through the numbers with a heavy pen, since as a widow she need not have recorded them. But the information she’d penned remained legible, and what I read offered no surprises: she’d been married for twenty years, and had borne six children, of whom four were living and two were dead. A further census search revealed that her other surviving daughters, Nellie Jane and Alice, resided nearby. The eldest, nineteen-year-old Nellie Jane, lived at 45 Trinity Square in the neighbouring Borough, in the home of John Alexander, a surgeon and clinical assistant at the Evelina Hospital for Children. Dr. Alexander had taken over the practice operated at the Trinity Square address by his father, Charles Linton Alexander, who had died in 1887. Nellie Jane was John Alexander’s “general servant, domestic”, so her day was spent sweeping, dusting, scrubbing, laying fires and serving at mealtimes.

I found Jennie’s other daughter Alice, also nearby, living with her uncle George Vanson, his wife Edith and their daughter Isabel a few blocks east along Waterloo Road from Burdett Street. Despite her young age, fourteen-year-old Alice had a more unusual job than her sisters or her mother, employed as an apprentice perruquier (wig-maker) for H&M Rayne, a company that made costumes for the theatre industry.

Wigs and Costumes
Alice worked as a perruquier, making wigs for the theatre. Her cousin Isabel worked as a costume maker.

Cousin Isabel, a couple of years older, also worked for Rayne, learning the skill of costume-making. H&M Rayne was headquartered just steps from Uncle George’s Webber Row address in Lambeth, so given the close proximity of the costumier, living with her Uncle George was a sensible choice for Alice.

 

If Alice and Isabel’s jobs sound interesting, Uncle George and Aunt Edith’s were more mundane. George was a dock worker, one of thousands of casual, unskilled labourers whose livelihood depended on what work was available when he showed up at the docks each morning hoping to be selected for a crew. A docker’s work was hard, dirty, and poorly paid, and a shift might last an hour or two, or stretch into the night, and depending on the cargo – lead, asbestos, fertilizers – could be dangerous. Edith toiled as a charwoman, an occupation not unlike George’s in that it was hard work and the pay meagre. To be a char was to be at the bottom of the domestic service hierarchy, and for most women, charing was a last resort before knocking on the workhouse door. George and Edith were barely getting by, so Alice and Isabel’s income was surely welcome.

Dockworkers
George worked as a labourer on the London docks, one of many of the unskilled poor.

Edith was about thirteen years older than George, and he was her second husband. Her first, Frank Pitcher, had been an inmate at Cane Hill Asylum, a place that readers of The Cowkeeper’s Wish will be familiar with. Admitted in 1888 when Frank and Edith had been married eighteen years, his admittance documents say he’d been “getting gradually worse for four years” and that he’d been “living apart” from Edith for some time. Poor Law records describe him as a “lunatic” who refused medicine, and occasionally food, believing them to be poisoned. He wandered aimlessly, his case notes state, required constant supervision and was “very wet and dirty night and day.” The casebook also revealed that his next-of-kin was his stepmother, as his wife’s whereabouts were unknown.

But in fact, Edith hadn’t gone far. I found her in 1891, living with her children in St Margaret’s Court, a street described by social investigators as “a bad quarter,” and yet also “a little village by itself” with a “brave show of flowers at west end.” St. Margaret’s Court was one of many narrow passages that led off Red Cross Street in Southwark where Jennie Vanson resided, newly wed to Richard, and was presumably where Edith was still living when she met Richard’s brother, George. Frank Pitcher remained a lunatic asylum inmate until his death in 1893, and three years after he died, in 1896, Edith married George Vanson. In my search for the trail of Jennie and her daughters, the coincidence of Cane Hill was interesting, but other than that, I dismissed George and Edith as just another of many poor couples that connected tangentially to The Cowkeeper’s Wish. But in fact the lives of George and Edith and Jennie and her daughters would be inextricably linked, and as I traced the path of the Vanson women, George would insistently appear, and eventually take on a new importance.

st margarets court
The area around St. Margaret’s Court, where Edith lived, was considered “a bad quarter,” but there was “a brave show of flowers in boxes at westend.” Image courtesy of Charles Booth’s London booth.lse.ac.uk

After finding Jennie and her girls on the 1911 census, and relegating the story of George and Edith to a sidebar, things got complicated. I looked for anything that would move the Vanson women forward in time, and discovered that Alice, our young perruquier, married in 1918 to an older man named Arthur Polley and moved to northeast London, where Arthur had his own business as a retail grocer. Ada, just four years old in 1911, married Edward McCarthy in 1932, and Florence, the tailoress, wed Fred Thomas, a carman, in 1914, and had at least two children, both born during the war years.

All of Jennie’s daughters, then, except the oldest, Nellie Jane, who’d worked for the doctor in Trinity Square, were so far accounted for. Nellie Jane proved somewhat trickier. In my hunt for her I came across a 1936 marriage index entry for a 45-year-old Nellie Jane Vanson and a 36-year-old Reginald Thomas Sanson in Eastbourne, Sussex. At first it seemed silly given the rhyme of the last names and Nellie’s age, and what on earth would a Vanson girl, come from generations of working class Londoners, be doing in a resort town on England’s south coast? Surely it wasn’t Jennie’s daughter. But then I found a death index entry in Eastbourne for a Jane Vanson, age 84 in 1955 (so born in 1871 as was our Jennie), and I reconsidered the Vanson-Sansons.

Eastbourne Pier circa 1940
The Eastbourne Pier and promenade. Nellie Jane married Reginald Sanson in Eastbourne in 1936.

Eastbourne in the 1930s wasn’t a very big place, and I reasoned that if Jennie had died there in 1955 there might have been an obituary placed in the local paper, and it might tell me if I had the right woman. I wrote to the cemetery board in Eastbourne to ask about Jane Vanson’s burial record, and I wrote to the Eastbourne Library (which holds the Eastbourne Herald newspaper archives) to see if they could find an obituary. Both replied, and from the cemetery board I learned the exact date of death and an address on Cavendish Avenue, Eastbourne, and from the library I received an obituary for Nellie Jane that gave the same address. Things were falling into place, and it certainly seemed that this was our Jennie and her oldest daughter Nellie Jane. But how had they come to be in Eastbourne, and when, and had they come together? Was it just Nellie Jane and Jennie or was other family in Eastbourne too?

 

I went back to the Electoral Rolls for London and continued to fill in the missing years, first coming across Flo and Fred in 1919 (with Fred’s rank, regiment and serial number, so he’d been in the Great War) at #2 Brigade House, Southwark Bridge Road. Brigade House was part of the London Fire Brigade’s Southwark headquarters, so perhaps Fred’s job as a carman meant he drove one of the horse and wagon fire engines. In 1929, Flo’s Uncle George, the dockworker, husband of Edith, suddenly popped up at their Brigade House address. But by 1933, Fred was alone at #2. No Flo, no George. Within two years, Fred had a new partner at #2, so maybe Flo died, although I’ve found no death record that matched. George, too, was gone, but he turned up at Rowton House, a hostel for down and out men on Churchyard Row, behind St Gabriel Street in Newington.

Rowton House Newington Butts
Rowton House, where George lived for seventeen years, was built by Lord Rowton to “break down the disgusting life led in our common lodging houses.”

That George’s circumstances were so reduced was a sad turn of events, and yet things might have been much worse. The Rowton House lodging houses were the best of what was available in terms of shelter for vagrants and poor single men according to the author George Orwell, who’d written from personal experience of homelessness in London in 1933. The facility where George lived had been built in 1897, the third such structure of its kind erected by Montagu Corry, 1st Baron Rowton. Lord Rowton had sought to improve the lot of poor single working men whose choices, if they had no home of their own, had ranged from filthy, bug-infested dosshouses and spartan hostels to penny sit-ups, where a penny bought a man a spot on a bench in a warm building, but did not allow him to lie down, to a park bench with the likelihood of a constable prodding him to move along.

Rowton House cubicle
One of the cubicles at Rowton House where a man could pay weekly in advance to keep his room.

When Rowton House in Newington Butts opened on Christmas Eve in 1897, there were 805 private sleeping cubicles with sheets, blankets, a quilt and a chamber pot, and pegs on which a fellow could hang his trousers. There were bathing facilities and lavatories in the basement, and a dining room on the ground floor that seated 400. A hot meal could be had for pennies, or a man could cook his own. There was a reading and smoking room, a barber and a tailor and a shoemaker. A man could pay for his room a week at a time in advance, and guarantee his spot, or he could take his chances and hope for a room, paying nightly. The newspapers of the day were impressed with Rowton House, and soon after the Newington location opened its doors, the South London Chronicle wrote that “the utmost good fellowship prevailed” among the inmates, and “the bill of fare [on Christmas Day] would not have shamed a high-class restaurant.”

 

By the time George became a resident in 1932, a wing had been added, increasing Rowton’s capacity by several hundred beds. On a night with a full house, George’s snores would have joined in a chorus with more than 1,000 other souls tucked into tiny cubicles over six floors. An account written in 1935 for The Sunderland Echo gives an idea of what life was like in Rowton House for George and men like him, past seventy and likely living on the pittance of a government Old Age Pension. He’d have kept the same room at the hostel by paying the weekly amount, and for a few more shillings he had the option of renting a locker where he could store his few possessions. In the morning, a bell-ringer travelled the hallways rousing George and the rest of the residents from their cubicles, and after a wash at the basins in the basement he and some of the other Rowton men gathered in the dining hall, making tea if they had a bit of leaf and a pot and a cup stowed in their locker, or purchasing porridge, a boiled egg and toast for a penny from the canteen. After breakfast, George might have spent some of the day in the smoking room – being illiterate he’d have had no use for the books in the reading room, and all Rowton Houses had strict rules against card playing. If the weather was fair, perhaps he’d have taken a stroll and sat for an hour on a bench in the sun before returning to Rowton in time for the evening meal. Afterwards, those with a few extra coins in their pocket would sally forth to the pubs for a pint. Those without money to spare had an early night in their cubicles. The Sunderland Echo reporter, when he’d arrived at the hostel to research his article, had received a warning from one of the officials at the house: “Keep to yourself, chum; there’s some queer men in here.” And yet the writer found the Rowton House inmates to be mostly “respectable working men, quietly dressed,” even if one or two “showed their toes sticking through the ends of their boots.”

The penny situp
The “penny sit-up” was at least shelter for the night, but there was no lying down, and likely no sleeping either.

George lived at Rowton House for thirteen years, a spartan existence toward the end of a life that had held few comforts. I wanted to know more about how he got there. In 1911 he’d been working the docks and sharing his roof with wife Edith, daughter Isabel, and niece Alice, the apprentice perruquier. In 1929 he was presumably a boarder with another niece, Alice’s sister Flo and her husband Fred. Where had George been in the years in between?

A further search located George on the Land Tax register for 1916, renting a house in St Gabriel Street, Newington Butts, a short stroll from Rowton House. The 1918 Electoral Rolls confirmed the address, and also offered the surprise of his sister-in-law, our Jennie, the mother of Flo and Alice, living with him. I was intrigued. Had George’s wife Edith died? If so, I could find no recent record. I checked for a marriage record for George and his brother’s widow, but found nothing there either. George would have been 55 and Jennie 42 in 1918, and I supposed their co-habitation could have simply been a platonic arrangement of convenience, two middle-aged relatives with next to no money supporting one another in shared lodgings. The Electoral Rolls confirmed that this relationship, whatever it was, continued until 1929, when 66-year-old George turned up at Flo and Fred’s. Did Jennie kick him out? Or did George leave on his own? And after all that time, why?

Those kinds of questions are likely never to be answered one hundred years on, and yet, it’s difficult to stop looking. I turned my focus back to Eastbourne and discovered that another of Jennie’s children, Alice, the one-time perruquier who’d married the greengrocer Arthur Polley, had also moved to Eastbourne. In 1939, the couple had still been running their grocery in northeast London, but the 1948 Kelly’s Street Directory for Eastbourne yielded an address for Arthur and Alice just a few doors down from Nellie Jane and Reginald Sanson’s Cavendish Avenue address in Eastbourne. When he died in 1951, Arthur was relatively young at just 63. Perhaps he’d been unwell, and he and Alice had moved to the seaside for his health. That left Jennie and Ada in London.

Ada, Jennie’s youngest, had been not quite five years old when her father Richard died of tuberculosis. Most likely she barely remembered him. The man to feature more prominently in her life as a father figure had been her uncle George, with whom she and her mother lived for so many years. But in 1929, George moved to Flo’s, and Ada too left when she married Edward McCarthy, a loader for the London and North Eastern Railway working out of the Farringdon Street Goods Station.

Guinness Building Walworth
Guinness Buildings, Walworth, where Jennie and Ada lived in separate blocks for many years. Photo courtesy of Guinness Trust.

Mother and daughter remained in close proximity, though, living in different blocks of the Guinness Buildings on Brandon Street in Walworth, tenement housing erected for the urban poor that consisted of spare, two room flats with no running water or electricity, a shared toilet and sink on the landing, and pay access to bathing facilities two days of the week. They resided separately at Guinness Buildings until Jennie moved in 1954 to Eastbourne, where Nellie Jane, her husband Reginald, and the widowed Alice lived.

This might have been the end of the story, minus the unknowable details, but for a random search I did on the British Newspaper Archive website, completely apart from my Vanson research. I forget the exact parameters I searched on, but a March, 1934 headline I came across was provocative and sensationalist: “Girl Enveloped in Flames from Head to Feet. Young Hotel Servant’s Terrible End After Clothes Caught Fire.” The article appeared on the front page of the Eastbourne Gazette, and told of a young woman employed by the South Cliff Hotel in Eastbourne as a live-in chambermaid and waitress. Just off duty, the girl had been alone in her bedroom making notes in the laundry logbook when the skirt of her uniform caught fire on the gas flame of room’s heater. Girl Enveloped in FlamesShe was immediately engulfed in flames, and ran screaming into the nearby hotel kitchen where a porter had the presence of mind to fetch an eiderdown quilt and smother the flames. Her clothing was burnt completely away, and the porter, with the help of other staff who’d come running, laid her on her bed and covered her with blankets. She was admitted to the Princess Alice Hospital “suffering from extensive burns on her arms, legs, abdomen, chest and all over her back up to her neck,” and died the next day “due to shock following severe burning.” The inquest reported that there’d been no guard on the gas fireplace, but acknowledged that “most of us do use [gas fires] in this way.” The hotel was never considered to be culpable, although the Coroner made a point of saying that guards could be had “at very little extra cost, and they are well worth it, because they are just the thing to prevent clothes from igniting.” It was a sad tale indeed, but most interesting for me was that the young chambermaid’s name was Grace Vanson.

In all my efforts to discover the story of Jennie (Jane) Vanson and her daughters, I’d never come across anyone named Grace, but I was suddenly certain, in the way one can be with a hunch, that this was another of Jennie’s girls. The newspaper articles referring to the tragedy of Grace’s death quoted a sister, Miss Mary Jane Vanson, thanking the South Cliff Hotel’s management and staff “who had done everything that was possible for her sister” and I wondered, might the reporter have gotten it wrong, and Mary Jane was actually Nellie Jane? Elsewhere in the paper was an item of thanks “to all friends for the beautiful floral tributes and letters of sympathy” posted by Mrs. Jane Vanson and family. The Vanson story, I felt sure, had not yet revealed its final chapter.

Grace was 20 years old when she died in March of 1934, which meant she’d been born around 1914. I searched for, and found, an entry in the indexes for a birth registration that fit only too well – a Grace Vanson born in Lambeth in 1913 to a mother with the maiden name of Evans. Our Jennie had been born Jane Evans, but her husband Richard had been dead two years by the time of this Grace’s birth. If Grace was indeed Jennie’s daughter, who was the father? The only way to find out was to send for the birth registration, and when it arrived, it confirmed what I had suspected: Grace’s parents were Jane Vanson “formerly Evans” and her brother-in-law, George Vanson, a “waterside labourer”.Grace Vanson birth record

So how had the relationship that produced a daughter come about? Had George been a stalwart presence, supporting Jennie during Richard’s awful illness? Had he been a comfort she couldn’t do without after Richard’s death? Or had she been the one to offer George care in his time of need, when his marriage to Edith fell apart? Or was the real story something less noble, a matter of acting on impulses and giving in to attractions? One thing is certain: George’s wife Edith and their daughter Isabel were alive and living in a house on Inglemere Road in Mitcham, Surrey by 1918, and where they remained until Edith’s death, oddly enough in the same month and year as Grace’s – March, 1934. In contrast to Grace’s demise, fraught with tragedy and pathos, Edith’s, at the ripe age of 84, while surely sad for her unmarried daughter and companion Isabel and her Pitcher offspring, was in comparison, unremarkable and ordinary. Did Isabel send a note to her father at Rowton House, sharing the news of his wife’s death? Did George ever hear about his daughter Grace’s tragic end in the seaside resort town of Eastbourne?

George died of heart failure and a stroke on the 21st of January, 1945. The record states that he was 79, but counting from his birth in 1863 he was actually 82. The record also indicates that George’s regular place of residence was still the tiny cubicle at Rowton House in London, yet his death occurred at an address in Worthing, a coastal town only a few miles from Eastbourne. It’s tempting to think that this means something, that perhaps George was reconciled with Jennie and the remainder of her family in the end, but I’ve found nothing to substantiate the idea, and in 1945 Jennie still lived in London at Guinness Buildings. Sometime in 1954, she left London and moved in with Nellie Jane and her husband, sharing their tidy two storey rowhouse just a few blocks from the seafront. It must have seemed like a different world to her. Instead of the traffic and people noises she’d heard all her life, she’d have heard the cry of gulls and the crash of the surf. In place of the familiar smells of vehicle exhaust and sewers and other people’s cooking were the odours of fish and tangy salt water. On warm days she and Nellie Jane and Alice might have strolled the beachfront promenade, or walked out on the pier, and turned their faces to the sun. She didn’t live long after her move to Eastbourne, but it’s nice to think of her in that tranquil setting, spending her last days in the company of her daughters. Jennie died on the 19th of March, 1955, and was buried at the Ocklynge Cemetery in Eastbourne.

Eastbourne holiday poster

Sources

Part 3: Mysteries and mystranscriptions, a genealogical case study

Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal in 1895, a few years before Walter and Maria Dunn arrived in the city as home children. © McCord Museum

A few posts ago, I started piecing together the back story of a WW1 veteran named Walter Dunn, whose daughter Elsie died in a tragic accident just after the war. In the first post, I tried to untangle Walter’s two wives, Blanche and Myrtle, and never really got to the bottom of it. I found out that Walter had married Myrtle in 1912, and that they’d had Elsie shortly thereafter. But by the time Walter enlisted in 1916, his wife’s name was Blanche, and I could never figure out what had happened to Myrtle. I’m happy to say that that mystery has now been solved, and that many other pieces have fallen into place for Walter’s story, including details about his life as a home child, which were still puzzling me in the second post.

For now, I want to travel back to 1912, when Walter married Myrtle Bishop in Montreal. The wedding took place in April, right after Myrtle had been baptized and converted to Catholicism. Then in May, little Elsie was born. When she died in 1920, her death record clearly stated that her mother’s name was Myrtle Bishop. But Myrtle had disappeared, and subsequent records consistently showed Walter’s wife’s name as Blanche. Try as I might, I could not find a death record for Myrtle or a marriage record for Walter and Blanche. But today I found both — simply because I took away detail from my search criteria.

I considered the possibility that Walter and Myrtle had simply parted ways, and that he and Blanche had never officially married. But I thought that pretty unlikely, so I kept on hunting. Having seen so many poor transcriptions on my travels through genealogical records, I figured it was most likely that the records weren’t turning up because the names had been twisted somewhere along the line. So today I searched Quebec death records between the years 1912 and 1914, and entered only the name Mirtle (I had seen it spelled that way on other records). Up popped a record for someone who’d died in 1912, and whose first name was apparently “Epse Dunn mirtle” and whose surname was “Pearl.” Right away I knew this was her. A closer look at the handwritten record shows her name scrawled in the ledger as “Mirtle Pearl epse Dunn” — epouse meaning her spouse’s name, but the transcriber must not have known that, and also made the strange error of inverting her given and surnames. The record doesn’t say how she died, but perhaps there were complications following Elsie’s birth. In any case, now I knew that Walter really was widowed, and that Elsie never knew her biological mother.

I was all the more determined, then, to find a marriage record for Walter and Blanche, and again I decided to remove details from my search criteria rather than adding everything I knew. I’d done this already, but I hadn’t gone far enough. I plunked in “Dunn” and searched Quebec marriage records between 1912 and 1916, and once again met with success. There they were, marrying in 1913 in an Anglican church, at a ceremony witnessed by Thomas and Sadie Woollands. So now I knew that Elsie was still a baby when Walter and Blanche married — and I had an aha moment when I saw the names of Thomas and Sadie.

I’ll backtrack a bit more: in my previous searches a few weeks ago, I had been frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find Walter’s wife-to-be, Blanche Poidevin, on the 1911 census, even though I knew that she’d come to Canada around 1908. You might remember from the first post about the trio that I used a roundabout way to discover Blanche’s background — the daughter of a French-from-France egg sorter who’d come from London, England, to find a job in Quebec as a domestic worker. It’s very common for uncommon surnames to get muddled, and I eventually found her passenger ship record by removing her surname and searching only for Blanches who’d sailed the seas from England to Canada at that particular time.

Since that had worked so well, I decided to try it again to find her on the 1911 census. I searched for Blanches, born in England, living in Quebec, and having immigrated at that time. Thankfully that’s one of the boxes that was requested on the 1911 census, so it really narrowed things down. The first person who came up was “Blanche Bidwin.” And yes, it was her, lost in a poor transcription. All the details fit — and on top of that, she was living with a couple named Thomas and Sadie Woollands.

St James Street, Montreal, 1910, a couple of years before Elsie was born to the newly married Walter Dunn and Myrtle Bishop. © McCord Museum

Transcription errors have actually eaten up much of my research time in the case of Walter Dunn. For weeks I couldn’t find him or his sister Maria on the 1901 or the 1911 census, and only when I loosened up birth dates and spellings to a ridiculous degree did any possibilities begin to appear. I’m pretty sure I’ve found Walter in both years now: in one, he’s been labeled “Walter Dum,” and it’s impossible to resist adding that that’s just dumb on the part of the transcriber — although I know myself how hard it can be to work out the loops and swirls of penmanship from days gone by.

I’ve found Maria too. The 1911 census shows her living as the “adoptive daughter” of a “voyageur” for a shoe factory. Yet another poor transcription had aged her by ten years, so she hadn’t turned up on my previous searches. In another aha moment, one of the men listed at the address — the voyageur’s wife’s brother — turned out to be the man Maria marries in 1917.

The stories of home children are often heartbreaking — Walter’s certainly is, having left home at 11, and later lost a wife and a child and gone to war, where he was gravely wounded. His sister Maria seems to have fared better. She lived to be 104 years old, and her 1994 obituary remembers her as “a very good and caring mother who had a generosity of spirit and certain joie de vivre.” The notice lists her loved ones, including brother Walter and various members of her husband’s family — and also two younger sisters in England, the girls born in the years before Walter and Maria were sent away. I’ve since found a 1959 obituary for Walter, too, and his also mentions the sisters. I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of it yet, and I might be wrong, but I believe these sisters may also have left the family home and lived in institutions within England. I wonder — Walter’s service record in 1916 states he doesn’t know if his parents are dead or alive, but his wounds brought him to a Liverpool hospital. Did he find his sisters then? Did he ever find his parents? Did he want to?

There will always be lingering questions with this type of work, but it’s amazing how one little find can uncover another, and before you know it, a story has formed.

Perth Avenue, Toronto, in WW1

1913 Fire Insurance Plan, Toronto
A 1913 image showing Perth and surrounding streets, from Goad’s Fire Insurance Plan. Click here for a larger view of the neighbourhood.

Over our years of work on The Cowkeeper’s Wish, much of our research was focused on the WW1 period, and through that time we made many connections with people engaged in their own projects. One of these was A Street Near You, a digital mapping project begun by James Morley, whose intention was to demonstrate the phenomenal possibilities of linking First World War data sources.

He began by bringing together data from three main places – Commonwealth War Graves CommissionImperial War Museums Collections, and the IWM’s Lives of the First World War project – and plotting the information on a map, so that searchers can zoom into a point of interest and start seeing connections and making more of their own. James explains the origins of his idea here, and continues to grow the project in new, intriguing ways.

Since it’s Remembrance Day, I thought it fitting to zoom into a place on the map that is special to me, and to see who turns up thanks to James’s magic. At the time of WW1, Perth Avenue in Toronto’s west end, between Lansdowne and Dundas Street West, was part of a working-class neighbourhood humming with industry and surrounded by railroad tracks. (For an excellent, quick read through the neighbourhood’s history, visit One Gal’s Toronto and her piece on Perth Avenue.)

The City of Toronto Archives has some great old photos of the area in this period, showing baseball games in the local park, little children at school, rail lines criss-crossing the neighbourhood, and old cars parked on somewhat bleak looking streets. Of course the cars weren’t old then, and neither were the houses. Many of the houses on Perth were built in the 1910s — new at the time of WW1.

Bloor Perth 1914Perth ave, 1916Perth Avenue Playground — Senior Baseball, OpeningPerth Avenue Square — Opening Baseball Game Osler Beavers vs. Elizabeth

The area had fewer residents than it does now, so people up and down the street surely knew each other. (Today this is still true, which is a rather lovely and unusual thing in a big and bustling city.) When someone’s son or husband died, it was likely a loss for larger area too. James’s map links eight war deaths to Perth Avenue in Toronto — there may well have been others, of course, and a quick zoom out shows a lot more deaths in the larger area. As you’ll see, a closer examination of the Perth Avenue addresses also yields links to other streets nearby.

Screen Shot 2019-11-10 at 1.34.10 PM
Perth is a north-south street in Toronto’s west end, between Lansdowne and Dundas. Image courtesy A Street Near You

So who were the eight with ties to Perth?

John William Lawrence was working as a clerk when he enlisted in April 1915, but barely saw service. According to his service record, he was underweight and sickly, and hospitalized upon arriving in England in 1916. Thereafter he was diagnosed with bronchitis, influenza and tonsillitis, and he was eventually discharged as physically unfit — he probably shouldn’t have passed the medical examination in the first place. Age 37, he died of cancer in February 1920 and was buried here in Toronto, in Prospect Cemetery. He and his wife Nellie lived on Weston Road and then on St Clair, and his mother, Elizabeth Todd, lived at 49 Perth Avenue.

William Horace Taylor was born in Toronto, but served with the British army. He died in Belgium in October 1917. So far I haven’t found a link to Perth Avenue, but I’ll keep looking.

George Henry Joseph Jordan enlisted in 1915, and was working as a labourer. According to George’s service record, his family moved from nearby St Helen’s Avenue to 103 Perth, where they remained, minus George, on the 1921 census. His father, also George, worked as a painter. Just 19 when he died in July 1916, George Jr’s casualty record states: “Previously reported Missing, now Killed in Action. He was one of a party detailed from his Battalion and attached for duty with a wiring party … and while putting out wire at the Bluff, Ypres … an enemy mine exploded and Private Jordan with many of his comrades was killed.”

Frank Sanderson Batty enlisted in 1915. At that time, he’d been living with his parents on Margueretta, just east of Perth, and working as an electrician. The family had come to Canada from Scotland in 1907. Frank’s service record shows that he died on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and puts his parents, Herbert and Mary Ann, at 189 Perth Avenue. A nephew, born the year he died, was named after him, and went on to serve in the next war.

Edward Charles Largen lived in the UK and served with the British Army, but his parents lived at 215 Perth Avenue. His father was a chef who at some point had worked at the Ontario College of Agriculture in Guelph. Edward died at the Somme in July 1916, but a letter exists, written to his parents from Belgium the year before, and reads, in part, “At present we are having a very pleasant time camping out in a field almost out of the sound of the guns. The weather is beautifully warm and life’s worth living. … There is still plenty of fighting before us, however, and I hope I have the luck to see it to the finish.”

George Robert Williams was living with his wife Rena on Campbell Avenue, a couple of streets east of Perth, when he enlisted in 1916. At that time, he was 22 years old and employed as a shipper. He had come to Canada from England in 1910, and he and Rena had married in September 1914, in the early days of the war. At some point during George’s time overseas, Rena moved to 271 Perth. His service record states that on Nov. 8, 1918, just a few days before the war ended, he was hospitalized in France with influenza. The outbreak was deadly and widespread, and claiming lives here at home in Toronto too. George Williams was pronounced dangerously ill on the 14th, and died the next day.

james oakley
James Oakley, a bricklayer who lived across from Perth Square Park

James Oakley was a bricklayer at the time of his enlistment in 1916. He was living with his mother Ann at 357 Perth Avenue, just across from the park where the baseball photos were taken in those days. Unlike most of the men above, James had been born in Toronto. His 1888 birth record says his father Thomas was also a bricklayer, and the family was then living on Manning. James’s service record tells us he was wounded in the back and arm in September 1918, and died soon after of shock from those wounds. I came across this photograph of him by contacting a woman who has him in her online family tree. She told me that the photo came to her all the way from Florida, via a stranger who’d acquired the image, and wanted to see it returned to family.

James Martin was born in Belfast and living with his wife Elizabeth at 479 Perth when he joined the army. His service record tells us he was working as a labourer, and had a tattoo of “an English dancing girl” on his right forearm. He was on the old side for soldiering — 38 when he enlisted in 1914 — and had served with the British Army in the Boer War. In 1916, he was working as a transport driver for the service corps when he fell from a wagon and injured his head. His application for a pension was complicated by the fact that he tested positive for syphilis. The board wrote, “We found this one of the most difficult cases to decide upon.” Though his disability was considered total and permanent, the pension was denied. Lengthy notes in his file discuss paralysis, speech difficulties, and impaired memory: “Speech is thick. Has difficulty in pronouncing common words. … Mentally stupid. Says he lived on Perth St Toronto but cannot tell what Province Toronto is in. Nor whether it is in North or South America. Knows it is in Canada. Understands and carries out all commands fairly when not too complicated.” Unusually, James Martin’s record contains a letter handwritten by him on stationary from Granville Special Canadian Hospital in Ramsgate, Kent, expressing his eagerness to get home. “I may also mention that I have a wife and child in Toronto, my wife who is at present time, in a delicate state of health, which I am afraid is partly due to anxiety on my account, and would I am sure improve on my return to her.” James Martin was invalided to Canada and died in October 1918.

Letter from Ramsgate

Three more men appear on Perth at this Canadian mapping project: Henry James Cox of 97 Perth Avenue; Thomas Henry Cox of 101 Perth Avenue; and Henry Jack Powrie of 121 Perth Avenue. I’ll explore those stories in the near future.

Part 2: Home children Walter and Maria, a genealogical case study

In my last post I told you about a man I was researching, who was wounded in WW1 and whose daughter was accidentally killed not long after his return to Canada. That post focused on unraveling the two wives of Walter Dunn (Myrtle Bishop and Blanche Poidevin) and sorting out who was the daughter’s mother. In this post, I’ll dip further back into Walter’s story — but don’t worry, I will eventually come forward again, and investigate his daughter’s death in 1920.

As I mentioned last time, the 1921 census record for Walter and wife Blanche showed that he arrived in Canada in 1898. When I saw that, I immediately wondered if he was a “home child.” Library and Archives Canada describes the home child scheme this way:

Between 1869 and the late 1930s, over 100,000 juvenile migrants were sent to Canada from the British Isles during the child emigration movement. Motivated by social and economic forces, churches and philanthropic organizations sent orphaned, abandoned and pauper children to Canada. Many believed that these children would have a better chance for a healthy, moral life in rural Canada, where families welcomed them as a source of cheap farm labour and domestic help.

After arriving by ship, the children were sent to distributing and receiving homes, such as Fairknowe in Brockville, and then sent on to farmers in the area. Although many of the children were poorly treated and abused, others experienced a better life and job opportunities here than if they had remained in the urban slums of England. Many served with the Canadian and British Forces during both World Wars.

homechild traveling alone
Chadwick Sandles, a 1911 home child, courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

I found Walter’s name in the LAC Home Children database, and for several reasons I knew I had the right Walter Dunn. The year of his arrival, 1898, matched the 1921 census; among the other children he was traveling with was a girl named Maria, whose age was correct for the sister I’d already found out about by matching Walter’s Quebec marriage record (which named his parents) with English census records. So it was clear that Walter came to Canada as a home child along with his little sister Maria. They were listed as 9 and 11 years old, and they were traveling on the Numidian with the Liverpool Catholic Children’s Protection Society. Along with Walter and Maria, the Society was transporting 22 other children ranging in age from 3 to 18. A Miss Yates was in charge of the group, and Miss E Cawley was listed as the matron. There were other groups of home children on board too, and many from a number of English workhouses. Three boys between 8 and 11 were rejected as unfit upon arrival, and were sent back across the ocean. One can only imagine how that must have felt, and what became of these boys after their journeys, but that’s a story for another day.

As far as I can tell, Walter and Maria were the two oldest children of Walter Dunn, a dock labourer, and Margaret Shearon, a hawker. Walter’s occupation alone suggests the family lived in poverty. Dock labourers loaded and unloaded ships, and transported the goods between ship and shed. Though they could sometimes earn a decent wage, relatively speaking, the social investigator Beatrice Potter, writing in the 1890s, describes this type of work as casual and uncertain, and says “The most they can do in their forlorn helplessness is to make the pawnbroker their banker, and the publican their friend. … If married, they must submit to the dreariness of a one-roomed home which, even in its insufficiency, [depletes] their scanty earning. … And the fact that the wife can and frequently does work weakens the already disheartened energies of the husband, and with the inevitable neglect of children and home tends to drag the whole family down into the lower ranks of casuals.”

Margaret’s job as a hawker — selling her wares in the street — does indeed suggest a deep level of poverty. But she must have been accustomed to a hard-scrabble existence; before marrying Walter, she was already a “basket hawker” living with her widowed father, a dock labourer just like her husband-to-be.

flower sellers
Walter’s mother’s occupation, hawker, meant she sold her wares in the street, calling out to passersby. This image shows Covent Garden flower sellers, and comes from the book Street Life in London, 1877, courtesy LSE Library.

According to Potter, a dock labourer’s income was effected by “the vicissitudes of dock trade” but also by competition. A man might show up for work punctually day after day, and prove that he was competent and dependable, but it didn’t give him job stability. “A strong man presents himself at the gate. He may be straight from one of her Majesty’s jails, but if he be remarkable for sinew he strikes the quick eye of contractor or foreman. The professional dock labourer is turned way and the newcomer is taken on. … The professional dock labourer retires disgusted; why exert himself to rise early and apply regularly if he is to be unofficially dismissed, not for any lack of duty or any special failure of strength, but simply because another has sunk from a higher plane of physical existence and is superior to him in brute force? And the widely know fact that a man without a character can live by dock labour becomes the turning point in many lives.”

In 1891, the couple were living on Circus Street in Liverpool with little Walter and Maria. The street no longer exists, but was just a short walk from the docks where Walter Sr worked, and where the Numidian would set sail from when the children left for Canada. What caused this to come about is unclear, but can be guessed at. The children weren’t orphaned, and they were probably not abandoned, since baptism records show that two more daughters were born to the couple in 1892 and 1894, four years before Walter and Maria moved away. So it was likely just dire poverty that led to the elder children leaving their parents and their two little sisters, hopefully for a better life.

The ship’s ledger states that the children’s ultimate destination was to Miss Brennan’s Home on St. Thomas Street in Montreal. An 1894 article in the True Witness and Catholic Chronicle described the home as a large, plain brick building, with “an appearance of neatness and scrupulous cleanliness which would do credit to a Dutch housewife.” It was newly opened then, and had space for more than 50 children. As for Miss Brennan herself, there was apparently “no more suitable lady … to fill the position of superintendent.”

How long the Maria and Walter were there is still a mystery to me, and where they went afterwards is uncertain too. I haven’t been able to find either of them in the 1901 or 1911 census records. But it seems they stayed close. When Walter’s ill-fated child, Elsie/Juanita, was born in 1913, one of the witnesses was Mary Dunn, who must be Maria. Maria married a man named Louis Bourdon in 1917, and Walter and his wife listed Maria Bourdon as a family contact when they crossed the border in 1935. So 37 years after they left their home in Liverpool, brother and sister were still connected.

Back in England, the Dunn family had carried on. In 1901 and 1905, Walter and Maria’s parents had two more daughters, and named one of them Maria, as if replacing the girl who’d gone. Unlike the sisters born in the 1890s, Walter and Maria probably never knew these two girls. Some home children were reunited with family, but the evidence doesn’t lean that way in this case. In 1911, parents Walter and Margaret were still living in Liverpool, with just the youngest daughter. In the column for “number of children born to this marriage,” they’ve answered four — discounting, it seems, the two who went away.

This detail is a sad fit for a note in Walter’s WW1 service record years later: asked if his mother and father were alive, the answer was: “does not know.” And yet — the wound he received in France eventually landed him in a Liverpool hospital. Did he retrace his steps when he returned there? For many home children sent far from loved ones, WW1 presented an unexpected opportunity to find family again.

Next time, I’ll explore Walter’s WW1 experience.

Part 1: Myrtle, Blanche and Walter, a genealogical case study

I mentioned in my last post that Tracy and I have been busy lately, each with new projects. Mine, very happily, has me visiting many of the same resources we used to create The Cowkeeper’s Wish — but the new story is set here in Toronto, and is not family-related. Still, I find I am coming up against many of the same conundrums and genealogical brick walls, and I thought I would write about one of them, partly to sort it out in my own mind, and partly because it will probably be of interest to anyone engaged in similar research, whether they are curious about family or general history.

This new book in the works, also non-fiction, explores patients and staff at a military hospital just after WW1. One day I was scouring the Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive available through our public library system. I was searching specifically for the term “lost an arm,” for reasons I won’t go into now, and I came upon a tragic 1920 article about a veteran who had indeed lost an arm during the war, and whose young daughter was killed accidentally by a boy playing with a gun.

The Dominion Bank Building, circa 1914, at the corner of Yonge and King. Courtesy Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection.

I was intrigued to find out the back story of this family. The little girl’s name was Elsie Dunn, and her father was Walter, a returned soldier who had just taken a job as an elevator operator in the Dominion Bank Building at Yonge and King. The mother/wife (as so often happens) was mentioned in the article, but not by name. Still, I had dates and details, and the article even included photographs of Walter, Elsie, and Elsie’s “mother.” (Read on to see why I use quotes here!)

I quickly found Walter’s service record at Library and Archives Canada, and was able to corroborate details in the article: the wound matched, the home address matched, and he had one child named Elsie. So now I also knew that Walter had been born in Liverpool in 1888, that he’d enlisted in Montreal in 1916, that he’d been wounded in the Battle of Arras, and that his wife’s name was Blanche. Some time during the war, or slightly after, the family moved from Montreal to Toronto.

When I looked for the death record of Elsie Dunn, however, nothing came up. Since I knew her age, and figured it was fairly unusual to die at eight years old, I removed her first name from the search field, and searched instead for a girl named Dunn who’d died in Toronto in March 1920. The record turned up, with her name recorded as Juanita Odesse Dunn. Almost everything else fit: her age; her father’s name, address, and birthplace; the cause of her death. Her mother, however, was listed as Mirtle B. Bishop, born Nova Scotia. I assumed the “B” stood for Blanche, and carried on gathering information.

I found the now childless Walter and Blanche still living on Gamble Avenue, in an area called Todmorden, just east of the Don River in Toronto in 1921. That particular census included a column for the year a person arrived in Canada, and told me that Walter had come in 1898, and Blanche, also born in England, in 1908. I immediately wondered if Walter had been a home child, having arrived here at age 10, and I quickly found his name, along with a sister Maria’s, in the Home Children Records at Library and Archives Canada. The back story to this is rather fascinating, but I will save it for a subsequent post, and stick with my investigations about Blanche and Myrtle for now.

Patagonian-Welsh home children on board the Numidian in 1902, the same ship Walter and Maria Dunn traveled on when they left England for Canada. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-037613

Now I knew that Blanche, married name Dunn, was born in England in 1888 and had come to Canada in 1908. That went against the details in Elsie’s death record, which said the Myrtle/Mirtle had been born in Nova Scotia. I searched for a marriage record and found one for Walter James Dunn marrying Myrtle Pearl Bishop in Montreal in 1912. Immediately preceding that record was a Catholic baptism for Myrtle. The discovery also revealed Myrtle’s and Walter’s parents’ names — but again I’ll stick with Myrtle for now.

Myrtle’s parents were Allen Bishop and Amy Hindon — clear, not-too-ordinary and not-too-odd names that I knew would be easy to find. And indeed, there they were with baby Myrtle on the 1891 census living in Nova Scotia. A later census showed the parents without Myrtle, but with a sister named Juanita Maxime. Hunting further back, the name Odessa also turned up in Amy’s ancestry. It was obvious I’d found the right family, and that Myrtle had named her baby after her own relatives.

And yet — the 1891 information challenged the idea that Myrtle, if she was Blanche, had come to Canada in 1908, and that she’d been born in England. It corroborated the information in Elsie’s death record: that mother Myrtle had been born in Nova Scotia. So all the records thus far very clearly showed two different names, two different birth dates, and two different birth places. If Elsie could be Juanita, then surely Myrtle could be Blanche, and I knew from the work Tracy and I had done on The Cowkeeper’s Wish that Eleanors could be Margarets, Olives could be Isabels, and so on. But now I had too many details that didn’t add up, and I knew there had to be a different story.

Next I searched for a birth record for Juanita Odesse Dunn, aka Elsie, and found that she had been baptized Juanita Maxime, like Myrtle’s sister, in Montreal in May 1912, a month after her parents had married. Once again the parents’ names were Walter James Dunn and Myrtle Pearl Bishop, with no mention of a Blanche. I began to wonder if Myrtle had died and Walter had remarried, but I could find no death record for Myrtle, and no remarriage for Walter. I wasn’t sure how to proceed to determine who Blanche was, but the little 1908 notation from the census kept niggling.

Finally I did a broad search of passenger lists for all Blanches, without a surname, born in England in 1888, who came to Canada in 1908. There was a handful of possibilities, but I was especially drawn to one record that showed a French surname: Poidevin. This Blanche was the daughter of an egg sorter born in France. The family lived in London, and Blanche’s siblings had working-class occupations like feather curler and perfumer’s assistant — not as glamorous as it sounds, and familiar territory from when Tracy and I researched our own ancestors in the poor areas of London. Like so many young English women of her era, Blanche Poidevin came to Canada with a party of domestic workers, and found employment in Montreal. Her English baptism record also gives her birth date — February 11, 1888 — and it was this detail that eventually linked her with more certainty to Walter Dunn.

Domestic workers arriving in Quebec, 1911, courtesy Library and Archives Canada

In 1935, 15 years after Elsie/Juanita’s awful death, Blanche and Walter Dunn traveled across the US border, heading to London, England, via New York. The cards filled out confirm various details: Walter’s sister Maria is given as a contact; the couple’s address is still Gamble Avenue, Toronto; and finally Blanche’s birthdate, February 11, 1888, matches the baptism record for Blanche Poidevin, daughter of the egg sorter.

Sometimes less is more with this type of research — the best way to find Elsie Dunn was to remove her first name; and the best way to find Blanche was to remove her surname. So now we know that Walter and Myrtle had a baby named Juanita; that something happened to Myrtle, or to her relationship with Walter, between the time Juanita was baptized in 1912 and the time Walter enlisted in 1916; that Walter married or took up with Blanche Poidevin; and that Blanche and Walter were living as husband and wife when Juanita died. Was it Blanche who decided to call Juanita Elsie, once Myrtle was longer around?

The mystery as to what happened to Myrtle is far from solved, but there is plenty to say about Walter, home child turned war veteran, in the next post; and about Elsie and the boy who caused her death.

 

Part 6: Ellen Shelley conclusion

incubator
General Lying In Hospital, York Road: nurse sitting with baby in incubator, 1908. Courtesy the Wellcome Library.

For the final instalment of this genealogical case study of a somewhat randomly chosen woman named Ellen Shelley, I must sheepishly reveal that I broke down and ordered her daughter’s birth certificate from the General Register Office. Within four days, I had received a pdf, and while it did confirm the girl’s name and birth date, the box for father’s name was unfortunately empty, with nothing but a line drawn through.

Disappointing, but not surprising. And when I look back to the first post, I realize I’ve found a fair bit of interesting information. In this last post in the series, I’d like to share a bit more detail about the resources used. They are just a sampling of what’s available out there, and all of them offer enormous possibilities for keen researchers, whether you are writing non-fiction, historical fiction, or doing genealogical work.

Those who have been following along from parts one through five in this case study will remember that I selected Ellen’s name from a page from a ledger for the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, where our great-great aunt, Jennie Vanson, gave birth to her daughter Ada in 1906. At the beginning of this venture, all we knew was Ellen’s name and address, and the fact that she was single.

Birth, death, marriage, census, and WW1 records from Ancestry helped us fill in her family information. On the Midwives Roll, also at Ancestry, we found Margaret Ann Le Mercier, who was likely the midwife listed on the hospital’s ledger when Ellen’s baby was born.

Digitized maps and notebooks from Charles Booth’s London helped us learn more about the area where she spent her life.

Maud Pember Reeves’ wonderful study, Round About a Pound a Week, gave us perspective on poverty and family life in Lambeth. The finished book appears on the Internet Archive and on Project Gutenberg, both excellent places to view old treasures.

The London School of Economics Digital Library showed us the Fabian Tract, Family Life on a Pound a Week. The Library is also home to Charles Booth’s London, the Women’s Suffrage Collection, and the 1870s book Street Life in London, which explores the lives of flower-sellers, chimney-sweeps, shoe-blacks, chair-caners, musicians, and more, through photographs and articles.

Lost Hospitals of London gave us a bit of background about the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, and the Wellcome Collection “for the incurably curious” offered some wonderful photographs from a doctor who was on staff there, as well as a clinical report of the hospital from 1912.

A London Metropolitan Archives catalogue search told us more about the records held regarding the Lying-In Hospital, and the British Newspaper Archive gave us clues about the hospital’s need for funds. We also found articles about undertakers (like Ellen’s father and brothers) and unwed mothers.

The National Archives, the Imperial War Museum, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission gave us more information about Ellen’s family in the war years, and about the air raids over London in both the First and Second World Wars.

bethlem iwm
Exterior view of the Imperial War Museum in its new quarters at Lambeth Road, London, 1937. © IWM (Q 61181). The site was very near several of Ellen Shelley’s addresses, and originally home to Bethlem Royal Hospital.

And just to take Ellen Shelley’s story through to its natural conclusion: I can’t be certain when her husband George died, but the records for Ellen and Priscilla are clear, since they include their birth dates, which match the birth dates given on the 1939 census. Ellen lived to be 89 years old, and died in Lambeth in 1972. Priscilla never married. She also died in Lambeth, age 81, not far from where she was born at the Lying-In Hospital, where our investigation began.

 

Part 5: Ellen Shelley, George Smith and the Great War

This is the fifth instalment in a series of posts about looking beyond the obvious records in order to bring a genealogical story to life. Part 1 of the search to find out more about the randomly chosen Ellen Shelley revealed basic facts through birth, marriage, and census; Part 2 delved into the world of undertakers, since Ellen’s father and her brothers held this job; Part 3 explored the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, where Ellen gave birth in 1906 as a single mother; and Part 4 explored the lives of women in the early 1900s.

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This modern map shows the area where Ellen Shelley and her husband George Smith lived. It would take about an hour to wander past most of the addresses I’ve encountered while researching the families’ whereabouts from the 1870s to the 1930s.
ellen shelley areas booth
Charles Booth’s poverty map, showing approximately the same area. For a detailed view, visit LSE’s Charles Booth’s London.

Ten years after she gave birth at the Lying-In Hospital, Ellen married a man named George Henry Smith. I’m curious about the connection between the Smith and Shelley families, since Ellen’s four-year-old daughter, Priscilla, was listed as a visitor with the Smiths when the 1911 census was taken. I would like to find out more about George as a way of finding out more about Ellen.

lambeth palace
This 1860s photograph of Lambeth Palace Yard shows St Mary at Lambeth church in the background. (William Strudwick, courtesy V&A Museum.) Now home to the Garden Museum, the church where Ellen and George were married has a long history in Lambeth. According to the museum’s timeline, bombing during WW2 damaged the church, and broke up the altar donated by Sir Henry Doulton, of nearby Doulton’s pottery, where our own relative, Fred Roff, was employed.

They married at St Mary at Lambeth parish church on Christmas Eve, 1916, when the Great War was more than two years old. It was one of five weddings that took place there that day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day being popular choices among the working classes. George, 30, was an electrician whose deceased father had been a stoker, and Ellen, 34, was a cook whose deceased father had been an undertaker. Two of Ellen’s brothers, both undertaker’s assistants, served as witnesses. There is no sign that George the husband had enlisted in the army at this point — often marriage records note rank and regiment, and this one does not. It does give us enough clues, though, to trace George from birth on, and to see that he lived his life in the same small impoverished area that Ellen did.

He was born in Lambeth in 1887, and baptized in the same church where he and Ellen would be married. By 1891 he and his parents and a younger brother named Ernest appear on Walnut Tree Walk, an address that comes up in a particularly dramatic aspect of our own family research around the same time — our great great aunt Ellen Roff lived here with her husband Fred, a potter at nearby Doulton’s, and their children, contemporaries of George Smith and Ellen Shelley, attended Walnut Tree Walk board school. Fred and Ellen Roff had serious domestic troubles and moved frequently, but for the most part stayed in the same general area as the Shelley and Smith families. I can’t help wondering if they knew each other.

By 1901, the Smiths have moved further south to Goding Street, near the Albert Embankment. In walking the streets of the city to investigate poverty levels, Charles Booth’s man George Duckworth described Goding this way:

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From George Duckworth’s notebook, 1899, BOOTH/B/365. Courtesy Charles Booth’s London.

George’s father is employed as a stoker for a stationary printer, and George himself, just 14, is working as an office boy, perhaps at the same establishment. He has three more siblings now, in addition to Ernest, so there are three sons and two daughters that we know of thus far in the Smith family.

Living just a couple of doors away is a widow named Sarah Rachel Woodman, who works as a military tailoress and has a young son named Charles Vere Woodman. The woman’s name rang a bell as one I’d come across when researching the Shelley family, and since Ellen Shelley’s aunt Elizabeth Muckell was also a military tailoress, I dug a little further and discovered that Sarah Rachel was also a Muckell: the other sister of Ellen’s mother. So now we know that Ellen’s future husband George and Ellen’s aunt Sarah were neighbours on Goding Street.

All this time, Ellen Shelley and her family have lived to the north of the Smith family addresses, on Westminster Bridge Road. In 1911, though, Ellen’s family appears at 13 Canterbury Place, a small crescent south of the longtime address, and just above Walnut Tree Walk, where George spent some of his childhood. The Shelleys’ neighbours at Canterbury Place include the two aunts, Sarah and Elizabeth Muckell, their brother Arthur George Muckell, a music hall waiter, and Sarah’s teenage son Charles Vere Woodman. The Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum is a little to their east, and further on from there is Temple Street, the Smith family residence. George’s father has died, and this time George is listed as a stationary engineer, so perhaps he’s moved into his father’s job. He’s living with his mother and siblings, the youngest just six years old, so that’s a clue as to when the father died. Little Priscilla Shelley is a “visitor,” but we know from skipping ahead in time that this address — 20 Temple Street — later becomes Pastor Street, where George, Ellen and Priscilla can all be found together in 1939.

When I track these census records through the years, I notice several boys who will be of fighting age when war comes. Though no record has turned up for George, there is little doubt that the war effected these families deeply. And with their years of experience as military seamstresses, Ellen’s aunts were likely in high demand. So far I have found:

Royal_Naval_Division_recruiting_poster
A recruiting poster for the Royal Naval Division. George’s brother served with the Hood Battalion and survived the war.

Ernest Francis Smith, George’s brother, enlisted in June 1913, and on his September 1915 marriage record to a milliner named Daisy, he is a rifleman with the Queen’s Westminster Rifles. After the war was over, he complained of bronchitis, heart trouble, and defective vision. But he fared better than his brother Walter Alfred, who served with the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division — essentially sailors who fought on land — and died in France in April 1917. If I were writing Ellen Shelley’s story, I would order Walter’s service record to see what else it might tell me, especially given the fact that Ellen and George marry just a few months before Walter’s death.

Ellen, too, lost a brother. Arthur Charles Shelley, a private in the 7th Battalion Rifle Brigade, was “killed accidentally” in July 1916, according the Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects. The record neatly lists each of his siblings as receiving a portion of the small amount of money he left behind. So far I have not found Arthur’s service record or a newspaper article, which might tell us more about how he died, or whether there was an inquest into the accident. There might also be a clue in the battalion’s war diary.

It_is_far_better_to_face_the_bullets
A 1915 British recruiting poster. Was this the sort of message that inspired Ellen’s cousin, Charles Woodman, who’d apparently been a casualty in an air raid in London before enlisting?

Ellen’s cousin, Charles Vere Woodman, son of one of her military-tailoress aunts, also served as a soldier. He survived the war, but his service record implies a horrific experience. Married, and the father of a baby boy, he was working as a hotel porter when he enlisted in June 1916, just a month before his cousin Arthur died. Early in 1917 he was sent to France, and by February of 1918, he was admitted to the 3rd Canadian Stationary Hospital in Doullens, and diagnosed with neurasthenia. His record gives some excellent detail: “On 10-2-18 there was a bombing raid … he was not physically affected by any explosion but lost control of himself and shook all over.”

Another entry states:

“On the night of the 16th-17th Feb there was an enemy air raid of some hours duration. … This man was in a very nervous condition and finally had a sort of fit & had to be held down. I understand he was a casualty in an air raid in London and was in Charing X Hospital for some time previous to joining the Labour Corps.”

From Ellen’s perspective, the story is especially interesting not just because Charles was her cousin and lived very close to her, but also because it reminds us that London suffered air raids during the war. How did Ellen and her wider family fare, and how did the raids impact her own neighbourhood? This map shows a number of bombs falling around the area where Ellen lived.

Elephant and Castle tube station
This 1918 image by Walter Bayes shows civilians sheltering in Elephant & Castle tube station.  ©IWM (Art.IWM ART 935)

While researching The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we read that hundreds of thousands regularly sought shelter in the underground tube stations. At Liverpool Street Station, a woman was trampled to death in a stampede. Fights and arguments broke out; it was often crowded and smelly, with makeshift toilets. Anyone trying to use the trains found the platforms frequently impassable, every space having been taken up by people bedded down for the night. The Daily Mail reported on what it called “tube camps,” claiming that those who took refuge in the tunnels were “the happiest people in London.” There was some “crowding and crushing,” the writer admitted, but “the men calmed the fears of the women, and after a time stolid British silence was the prevailing note among the people.” Whole families gathered, the paper claimed, bringing rugs to sit on, and before long they were passing the time singing songs until “the stations were echoing to rollicking choruses,” oblivious to what might be going on above ground.

Elephant & Castle station, depicted above, was steps from Temple Street, where George Smith’s family lived, and where Ellen and her daughter Priscilla would eventually join George. It was also very near Brook Street, the address given on the service record for Ellen’s cousin Charles Vere Woodman. According to the Imperial War Museum, “Between May 1917 and May 1918 more than 300,000 people used the tube to shelter from German aeroplane attacks. That was double the amount of people that were regularly sheltering in the tube during the height of the London Blitz in September 1940.” A sad reminder that just a year after we find Ellen, George and Priscilla on the 1939 census, war was underway once more, and the stage of Ellen’s life story was heavily bombed.

Part 4: Ellen Shelley and the power of women

alexandra day
In 1912, the country was looking for a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Queen Alexandra’s arrival from Denmark, and launched Alexandra Rose Day, which would raise funds for her favourite charities (the Lying-In Hospital included) through the sale of artificial roses.  © IWM (Art.IWM PST 6050)

This is the fourth instalment in a series of posts about looking beyond the obvious records in order to bring a genealogical story to life. Part 1 of the search to find out more about the randomly chosen Ellen Shelley revealed basic facts through birth, marriage, and census documents; Part 2 delved more deeply into the world of undertakers, since Ellen’s father and her brothers all held this job; and Part 3 explored the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, where Ellen gave birth in 1906 as a single mother.

One of the readers of this blog wrote in to say that her mother was born at the hospital in 1918, ten years after Ellen Shelley gave birth there. In this case, the pregnant woman was in her early 30s. She had met a man six years her junior, and they “had to get married.”

“It was a wartime encounter. My grandfather was from the East End of London & was from a large working class family, with no money of his own. She married ‘beneath her’!! as they said in those days, so I imagine the Lying In Hospital was the only option, other than a home birth which would have been impossible under the circumstances!”

Still another reader of this blog — a dear friend who is a midwife here in Canada — suggested that those who registered with the hospital would have been those of greatest need, who were living in cramped or dire housing situations. “Home was still the standard for birth so it would have been exceptional to plan something else.”

Most of the people registered with the hospital actually did have home births. When Maud Pember Reeves began her investigation of poverty and its effect on family life in 1908, she selected her participants from the hospital’s ledger. In the finished work, Round About A Pound A Week, she writes:

Access was obtained to the list of out-patients of a well-known lying-in hospital; names and addresses of expectant mothers were taken from the list, and a couple of visitors were instructed to undertake the weekly task of seeing each woman in her own home, supplying the nourishment, and noting the effects. From as long as three months before birth, if possible, till the child was a year old, the visits were to continue.  … A doctor interviewed each woman before the visits began, in order to ascertain if her health and her family history were such that a normal baby might be expected. It was at first proposed to rule out disease, but pulmonary and respiratory disease were found to be so common that to rule them out would be to refuse about half the cases. It was therefore decided to regard such a condition of health as normal.

Among a relatively poor population, the committee chose people from the middle ground, since families who had the best wages were likely to already have sufficient nourishment, while families with the most meagre earnings were likely to be living in such poverty that they’d be too tempted to share the mother’s and baby’s extra nourishment among the rest.

The women selected were from the area where Ellen Shelley had lived since birth, in streets branching off Kennington Lane, Vauxhall Walk, and Lambeth Road. Their husbands had jobs like potters’ labourer, fish-fryer, and tailor’s presser. Many of them were illiterate, so the task of meticulously recording all of their expenses for the purpose of the study was daunting, and they had their husbands or children help them. Others muddled through on their own and “Great care had to be taken not to hurt their feelings as they sat anxiously watching the visitor wrestling with the ungainly collection of words and figures. … Seeing the visitor hesitate over the item ‘yearn 1d,’ the offended mother wrote next week ‘yearn is for mending sokes.'”

Most of the women were good at arithmetic, though, and could calculate in their heads, because managing money was such an important part of their everyday lives. Those who had worked before they were married — one, like Ellen, had been a tea-shop waitress — often became “interested and competent accountants” as the project went on.

A pamphlet based on the study can be read here, and a bit of background on the book appears here.

The book is wonderfully informative, and written in a surprisingly non-judgmental fashion, given the era. It goes into great detail about the difficulties these women had making ends meet when a paltry income had to cover rent, burial insurance, coal and light, cleaning materials, clothing and food.

Though the women are often lovingly described (Mrs. K. was happy-go-lucky, but her skirts had been chewed by rats; Mrs. P. was pretty and practical and bought cracked eggs because you could smell them when they’d gone off), Reeves believed most of them “seemed to have lost any spark of humour or desire for different surroundings. The same surroundings with a little more money, a little more security, and a little less to do, was about the best their imaginations could grasp.”

The descriptions bring us just a little closer to Ellen Shelley, who lived among these women and came from a similar background. They had husbands, however, and Ellen Shelley did not; they gave birth at home, while Ellen gave birth at the hospital. Did she enter the hospital just because she was unmarried? Or because the place she was living was unsuitable for giving birth? In 1901, when the family resided at 62 Westminster Bridge Road, there were 11 people in the house: Ellen, her father, her siblings, and some of her mother’s family. Was it still this crowded in 1906, when Ellen’s baby was due? The 1911 census shows her living with her father at Canterbury Place, so the pregnancy does not seem to have caused a rift within the family, or at least not one that lasted. But why does the hospital ledger show the first address — Westminster Bridge Road — stroked through, and the second written beneath it? Did the move happen right around this time, and did it have anything to do with Ellen’s pregnancy? Remember also that Ellen’s mother had died in the late 1890s, and that she was the eldest of the girls in her family — so as a woman she may have felt rather alone at this profound time in her life.

For women in general, big changes were brewing. In February 1906, the Women’s Social and Political Union held its first march in London to demand voting rights for women. According to suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, they marched to the House of Commons in the pouring rain. “I think there were three or four hundred women in that procession, poor working-women from the East End, for the most part, leading the way in which numberless women of every rank were afterward to follow. … They were awake at last. … Our militant movement was established.”

Emmeline-Pankhurst-addressing-a-crowd-in-Trafalgar-Square
Emmeline Pankhurst addresses the crowd in Trafalgar Square. Central Press, October 1908, NPG x131784. © National Portrait Gallery, London

If I were writing Ellen’s story, I would order three records at this point: the mother’s death certificate (1899), the father’s death certificate (1912), and the child’s birth certificate to see if any of them held more clues. Death certificates will state the cause and place of death, and also the name of a person present at the death. If no one was present, there was usually a coroner’s inquest, the results of which might appear in newspapers.

As for the birth record, the father’s name may well be recorded. In our own family research, we came across the very interesting story of a married woman who’d had several children with her husband, but left him, and had a child with a new man. The birth certificate revealed that she’d first registered the child with her husband’s surname, but the box for father’s name remained empty, with a line stroked through it. A baptism record and subsequent census records showed the child with her birth father’s surname.

So far no baptism record for Priscilla Shelley has turned up in my searches. I also checked for the name Priscilla Smith, since Ellen marries George Henry Smith in 1916, and little Priscilla is a visitor in George’s household in 1911. But that search also yielded no further clues.

What was it like to have a child out of wedlock in 1906? The obvious concerns were shame and money, and searches through the British Newspaper Archive for the terms “illegitimate child” and “paternity case” turn up plenty of mentions of women looking for support from the men they claimed had fathered their babies. In most of the articles I read, the men were made to pay. Nevertheless, it must have been a daunting process for a woman to go through, for in some cases, explicit personal details were made public, whether true or not, and printed in the papers for all to read.

A woman from Portsea claimed a soldier was the father of her child. The baby had been born in the workhouse, which suggests the woman was in dire financial straits. A man appeared in defence of the accused and stated that he’d seen the woman on several occasions with other soldiers, so the case was dismissed.

Another woman — a cats’ meat dealer’s daughter — claimed to have been seduced by the coach builder next door. The coach builder promised to pay for the child’s support, but then rescinded, because “it was alleged that men were constantly in the habit of going to the cats’ meat shop, and … through a small hole which was drilled by an auger in the wooden partition dividing the two shops, the girl was seen more than once in a compromising position with men.” Since the judge didn’t know who to believe, the case was dismissed.

A third woman — just 16 — was assaulted by a family friend, but by the time she worked up the courage to tell her parents who the father of her child was, “the period for taking proceedings against defendant … had elapsed.”

Then as now, one can see why women were reluctant to tell their stories in a court of law. Ellen, at least, seems to have remained close with her family, but there are too many gaps in her story to really be certain:

  • Priscilla was born in 1906, but there is no baptism record so far, and no school record, which might also include a father’s name or an address
  • Priscilla is a “visitor” with George’s family in 1911, and Ellen is living with her father and siblings
  • Ellen and George marry in 1916
  • Ellen, George and Priscilla are living together in 1939

So the question is, what was the link between Ellen and George’s families? Why — if George was not her father — was little Priscilla with him in 1911, and not with her mother? “Visitor” suggests she just happened to be at George’s home when the census was taken, so did she actually live with her mother? Why — if George was her father — didn’t George and Ellen marry earlier, with Priscilla taking her father’s name? To explore these questions, I’ll dip into George’s family history in the next post.

 

Part 3: Ellen Shelley and the Lying-In Hospital

general lying-in nurses, wellcome 1908
Midwives weigh and measure a newborn at the General Lying-In Hospital, Lambeth, in 1908. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

This is the third instalment in a series of posts that examine how to look beyond the obvious records to really breathe life into one’s characters. Part 1 of the search to find out more about our somewhat randomly chosen subject, Ellen Shelley, revealed the basic facts through birth, marriage, census documents, and so on; and Part 2 delved more deeply into the world of undertakers, since Ellen’s father and her brothers all held this job.

This time I’ll look more closely at the General Lying-In Hospital, in whose ledger Ellen is listed in 1906. I mentioned in my first post that we learned about the Lying-In Hospital while researching our great grandmother’s sister, Jennie Vanson, who gave birth to her last child there, and who — like all the others listed on the page except Ellen — was a married woman.

Established in the 1760s and situated near the Thames just off of Westminster Bridge Road, the General Lying-In Hospital was one of the first maternity hospitals in Britain. In the mid-1890s, it was described this way in Low’s Handbook to the Charities of London:

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Years ago, when we first started working on The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we ordered birth and death certificates for a number of the people we were researching. This was how we discovered that Jennie’s daughter Ada was born at the Lying-In Hospital. We were intrigued by the name, and when we visited England to do more in-depth snooping about many of our characters, we found the hospital’s ledger at the London Metropolitan Archives and photographed the two pages where Jennie was mentioned. That’s all I have to go on now, when hunting for Ellen Shelley clues, since sadly I can’t hop back to the archive whenever I would like (though if I lived in London, I would be visiting obsessively!).

happy midwife
A happy midwife and a not so happy baby at the General Lying-In Hospital, Lambeth, in 1908. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

It’s interesting to note that single women “of previous good character” had to present “satisfactory testimonials” to a committee in order to receive care by the hospital. I wonder now if the archive’s holdings included such testimony, and who Ellen asked to recommend her? Being an undertaker, her father might have known people associated with the hospital: doctors, midwives, or the local coroner. A quick search of the LMA catalogue shows me that the records do indeed include “registers of recommendatory letters, 1892 – 1939,” as well as the casebooks of doctors and midwives, so there is possibly more that could be gleaned about Ellen’s particular story if a visit in person were feasible. Sometimes the actual record can be disappointing when you finally lay your hands on it — it might just be a list that says who the letters came from and when; but then again, it might include the letters as they were written, and offer more about Ellen’s character, who the father of her baby was, and why she hadn’t married him. If I were actually writing Ellen’s story, I would want to know all of this and more, and if I couldn’t visit in person, I would find someone who could. For The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we did our own legwork during that flurried research trip I mentioned, but we also hired someone with smarts and tenacity to go back for more once we’d returned home to Canada.

Notice in the hospital description above that single women like Ellen could be patients of the hospital “for first confinement only” — I guess they were no longer “of good character” if they’d entered a second or third confinement and still hadn’t married! The ledger shows that Ellen Shelley was admitted “by order of the board,” whereas our Jennie Vanson and the other married women were vouched for by individuals: someone named Mrs Carthew, in Jennie’s case, but a “Lady,” a reverend, and a vicar are also on the list. This same page also lists the date each baby was born, and a surname in the final column. For Jennie, the name is “Montgomeri,” and for Ellen, the name is “Le Mercier.” My guess is that these are the midwives who delivered the babies.

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The novelist in me has decided that Nurse Woodyer is in love with the photographer, Dr. Basil Hood, both of the Lying-In Hospital. But the researcher in me knows this cannot be proven by the look on her face. Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

To check, I returned to Ancestry and entered the surname “Le Mercier” in a variety of ways, since a name like this is often misspelled or incorrectly transcribed. In the UK Midwives Roll 1904-1959, the name Margaret Ann Le Mercier shows up several times beginning in the early 1900s, usually associated with a Lambeth address. Cross-referencing with census records, I’d guess that this is the same woman, born in London in 1870, and living in St. Pancras in 1911, where she is listed as “nurse matron” and the employer of a number of other nurses at the same address. More snooping would be necessary to confirm this, but it seems an excellent fit.

When I am researching a topic that has anything to do with healthcare in this time and place, I always search the wonderful Wellcome Collection, which bills itself as “the free museum and library for the incurably curious,” and which is where I found the photographs placed throughout this post. They come from the album of one Dr. Basil Hood, and were taken at the General Lying-In Hospital around the time of Ellen Shelley’s stay. Some are straight-ahead portraits of the staff, but others are more candid, and even joyful. It surprised me to see these images, because I had imagined, after all I’ve read of this period, that the hospital would be an unpleasant place, if not quite as depressing as a workhouse, simply because it catered to poor women. These photographs make me all the more curious about the hospital and its staff. Perhaps one of the women shown below is Margaret Ann Le Mercier? And is Miss Woodyer, shown alone above, the same woman who appears below, smiling, third from left in the middle row? No, on closer inspection, I’m sure she’s standing to the left of the man, who I know is Dr. Basil Hood, since he is identified in other photos in the album. A little clip can be watched here that recounts his experiences during the WW1 flu epidemic.

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Nurses of the Lying-In Hospital with Dr. Basil Hood, 1908. Notice the slight difference in some of the uniforms. This probably means something to do with their positions at the hospital. Perhaps some are nurses, some are midwives, or some are still in training? Notice, too, the person peering in at far right. Late for the party? Or announcing that a woman has gone into labour! Courtesy Wellcome Collection.

If I were writing Ellen Shelley’s story, I would also search the Wellcome Collection’s Medical Officer of Health reports for mentions of the hospital in this time, and then do the same at the Internet Archive, which I see has a 1912 Clinical Report of the General Lying-In Hospital. Often you can turn up interesting details and statistics through such sources, even if they don’t mention your research subject by name. (And sometimes they do!) The same goes for the British Newspaper Archive. I found many mentions of the hospital over the years, and several articles to do with the hospital needing more funding. One from the Morning Post, dated two days before Ellen’s baby was born, referred to “an urgent appeal for funds” to help pay for an addition that gave the hospital 12 new beds and improved accommodation for nurses and servants. Perhaps the new beds were what enabled Ellen’s stay. The article goes on to say:

“It was felt that if the work of the hospital were more widely known and its present need brought home to a larger circle money must come in; so the matron, Miss B. F. Hancock, yesterday gave an At Home at the hospital, and during the afternoon Lady Victoria Lambton distributed prizes in the form of infants’ garments to patients of the hospital during the past six months whose infants were adjudged to have been best kept during that period. About 170 mothers with their babies were present, and many other visitors were shown over the new storey, and expressed their keen interest in the work done by the hospital.”

That paragraph alone offers a few leads that could be followed up. Who were Lady Lambton and B. F. Hancock, for instance? And what is meant by infants being “best kept”? Did the hospital do home visits to ensure the women were caring for their babies properly? What did the mothers make of such visits? Our Jennie Vanson had had five children before she entered the Lying-In Hospital to have her last baby, Ada. Did she welcome advice, by this time, or would she have found it insulting?

And that brings me to another rather basic question that I realized I’ve overlooked. Why did these women register with the hospital in the first place? Was there something particular about their situations that meant they needed extra care?

Again I turned to the British Newspaper Archive and found a 1902 article in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette:

Queen Alexandra has taken a kindly interest in, and shown practical sympathy with, the family of ex-Trooper Benge, 2nd Life Guards, who met with an accident while in South Africa which affected his brain. The consequent lunacy, it is feared, may prove permanent. On June 26th he presented himself at Buckingham Palace and behaved in such a manner that he was placed under control, and admitted to the Hanwell Asylum, where he is now an inmate. He had a wife and two children, whose case was specially sad, in view of the fact that the mother was in delicate health, and the worry of her husband’s condition was more acutely felt in consequence. This was known to the Queen, who promptly gave Mrs. Benge a nomination for the Lying-in Hospital, Lambeth, and her child is now a month old. …

I do wonder if the LMA records for the Lying-In Hospital show the queen’s name among the recommenders! And I am fiercely resisting the urge to look into the Benge family, since there is still more about Ellen Shelley to be discovered.

In my next post, I’ll start with Maud Pember Reeves’ book, Round About a Pound a Week, which grew out of a study she conducted involving Lambeth mothers registered as out-patients with the Lying-In Hospital. And if all of this seems tangential, I’ll address that too a little later on!

 

Part 2: Ellen Shelley, the undertaker’s daughter

This is the second instalment in a series of posts that will examine how to look beyond birth, marriage, death and census records to really breathe life into one’s characters. Part 1 of the search to find out more about our somewhat randomly chosen subject, Ellen Shelley, revealed the following:

  • she was an undertaker’s daughter, born in Lambeth in 1882
  • she had at least 7 siblings, and her mother died when she was 17
  • she had a child out of wedlock at the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth in 1906, when she was in her early twenties
  • she was working as a waitress in a coffee shop when the 1911 census was taken
  • she was still living with her father and four of her siblings at this time, but the record offers no detail about her child

The next record that turns up for Ellen Shelley confirms her Christmas Eve marriage in 1916 to a man named George Henry Smith, an electrician. Digitized records for London Church of England unions often give extra clues, and here we can see that 34-year-old Ellen, a “spinster” with middle names Priscilla Sarah, was working as a cook; that her father, by now, was deceased, and that she was living at 141 Lambeth Road at the time of her wedding. Her brothers, William Bird Shelley and Ernest Shelley, signed as witnesses, and the ceremony took place in St Mary’s parish church, Lambeth. Curiously, her 30-year-old groom was living at 13 Canterbury Place, the same address recorded as Ellen’s in the Lying-In ledger in 1906, and the address she lived at in 1911 with her father and siblings. So why, in 1916, is Ellen no longer there, and her groom George is?

Next I looked for George on the 1911 census, and despite the surname “Smith,” he was fairly easy to find, since the marriage record had given me his age, his occupation, and his father’s name. Cross-referencing a few different bits of information, I found him living at 20 Temple Street with his mother, four siblings, and a four-year-old girl named Priscilla Shelley, listed not as a member of the household, but as a “visitor.” Was this Ellen’s mystery child? And was she George’s daughter too? If so, why did they wait until 1916 — ten years after the baby’s birth — to marry?

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Charles Booth’s poverty map shows Canterbury Place at the far left, under the St Mary Lambeth text, and Temple Street at the far right of the map, running north-south in the bottom corner. Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum is in between. Visit Charles Booth’s London for a larger view.

I leaped ahead, then, to the 1939 census, and found George and Ellen, nearing 60 now, living with George’s mother Jane, and also Priscilla Shelley, an assistant in a glass and china shop. Their address is 20 Pastor Street, Southwark, and the overlay of Booth’s map shows me that this is the same location as 20 Temple Street, though the name has changed. (The names Pastor and Temple must come from the street’s proximity to the Metropolitan Tabernacle, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day.)

This particular census doesn’t state people’s relationships to the head of the household, so it still doesn’t tell us whose child Priscilla was. And it’s interesting that she goes by the name of Shelley. If George was her father, wouldn’t she have carried his name after her parents married? The census does tell us she was born on July 15, 1906, a date that matches the entry in the Lying-In ledger.

So with all this added up, we can be fairly certain that, in 1906, Ellen was an unwed mother who gave birth to a baby she named Priscilla, a name that turns up often in Ellen’s ancestry. It was Ellen’s middle name, but it was also her great grandmother’s name, her grandmother’s name, and her aunt’s.

Now that we have some of the facts in place regarding Ellen Shelley, I’ll go back to her early years to try to fill things in a bit, and see if we can get a better picture of who she was.

In 1891, she is living at 62 Westminster Bridge Road with her family. The Muckells — her maternal grandmother and some of her mother’s siblings — are here with them. Next door is an actress, and a few doors down are a couple of “theatre property makers,” so perhaps there is some connection with the nearby Surrey Theatre, which put on melodramas and pantomimes during this period. Ellen’s father John, the undertaker’s assistant, probably works nearby as well, assisting in coffin-making, or taking bodies to cemeteries, or to mortuaries for coroner’s inquests.

Undertakers had a bad name in Victorian times. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the undertaker’s assistant is an unsavoury creature who snatches some of Scrooge’s belongings after his death — “a seal or two, a pencil-case, a pair of sleeve-buttons, and a brooch of no great value” — and sells them to old Joe, who runs a scavenger shop in a London slum, where:

The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.

A Christmas Carol illustrated by Arthur Rackham
A 1915 edition of A Christmas Carol shows the pawning of Scrooge’s bed curtains. The undertaker’s man  stands “in faded black” at the back of the group, looking greedily on.

No employer is mentioned in the documents I’ve found for Ellen’s father John, but he may have worked for the parish undertaker, who would have handled so-called “pauper funerals,” the most basic variety for the poorest of the poor, and the kind everyone strove to avoid.

At great expense, people bought burial insurance to avoid the indignity of a pauper funeral paid for by the parish; many contributed weekly to “funeral clubs” in order to save enough for decent trappings: black garments for the family, the use of a hearse and coachman, and the coffin itself – black for an adult, white for a child. Displays in undertakers’ windows advertised myriad choices available to the bereaved: elaborate funeral cards to announce deaths, plumes of black ostrich feathers for the horses pulling the hearse, stone markers carved with doves or broken lilies.

In her 1913 work Round About a Pound a Week, Maud Pember Reeves wrote that paying burial insurance was a “calamitous blunder” on the part of poor families, but understood, too, that the alternative was to settle for a pauper’s funeral paid for by poor law funds. The women Reeves interviewed as part of her indepth poverty study were from the vicinity where the Shelleys lived, and they were adamant that “the pauper funeral carries with it the pauperization of the father of the child – a humiliation which adds disgrace to the natural grief of the parents.” One woman even said she’d prefer to have the dustcart call to collect her child’s body.

A search through the British Newspaper Archive for parish undertakers turns up several pathetic stories, including mention of an ongoing problem with cheap coffins that fell apart as they were being taken to the grave. There are also stories of undertakers fined for stuffing more than one body into a coffin, or charged with not burying the bodies at all, and pocketing the fees. In my very first post on this blog, I wrote about an undertaker who claimed to have been cheated by a deceased woman’s family: he’d picked up their dead mother from the workhouse, as requested, and had intended to take her to the cemetery for burial, but the family didn’t pay him, and he claimed he couldn’t afford to pay the cemetery’s fee himself. The body was discovered on his premises when neighbours complained of an “intolerable effluvium.”

No such gruesome stories have turned up about John Shelley, but we do know that he was an undertaker in a very poor part of London, and that he would have regularly encountered grief compounded by poverty. He started working in the industry some time between 1871, when he was a boy at home with his parents, and 1878, when his occupation is listed on his marriage record. He was still working as an undertaker in 1911, a year before his death, and two of Ellen’s brothers, William Bird Shelley and Ernest Shelley (the same ones who witnessed her marriage to George Smith) were also undertaker’s assistants in 1911. So death, so to speak, was very much a part of Ellen Shelley’s life.

Next up, I’ll move ahead to Ellen’s time at the Lying-In Hospital, and the birth of Priscilla.