Imagining the Radio Hour

Close your eyes and imagine that it’s 10 o’clock on a Saturday evening in London, Ontario. The year is 1928. This is our grandmother Doris Deverill’s world. She is 18, and is somewhere in the same city, perhaps, like you, sitting in a flocked, over-stuffed armchair with her feet curled beneath her.

doris 18 (1)
Doris Deverill around 1928

In your room, the heavy drapes are drawn and a small lamp with a thin silk shade is colouring the room a dusky orange. You’ve just turned the knob on the front of the polished wooden radio set that has pride of place on the floor of your small living room, and it hums and then crackles to life. Strains of a theme song fill the space – This is My Lucky Day – and it’s not lost on you that the song has been chosen with a purpose; first, the word ‘lucky’ provides a little indirect advertising for the show’s sponsor, Lucky Strike Cigarettes, as well as a link to the show’s title, The Lucky Strike Radio Hour, and second, it’s a popular song, having been part of a string of Broadway revues called the George White Scandals, similar to the Ziegfeld Follies.

Immediately following the last notes of the song the voice of the unnamed announcer comes on, his speech clipped and crisp and slightly nasal. “And so begins this hour of dance music, presented for your pleasure by the manufacturers of Lucky Strike Cigarettes. The Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra will be heard in the tunes that made Broadway, Broadway.”

And on cue, the Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra’s bandleader, Benjamin Albert Rolfe, the so-called Boy Trumpet Wonder, introduces the first numbers of the evening, “a real dancing combination.” One of the songs – Bambalina – he calls an “old friend.”

You smile and listen as Rolfe and his orchestra play. His concept of dance music during this time of the late 1920s was that it should “throb and laugh with happiness; it should have the rhythm of a rubber ball, bouncing back, only to fall again, going on and on.” Those words were a fair description of what Rolfe himself had been doing for his entire career up to this point. Raised in Brasher Falls, New York, he’d played piccolo and cornet in his father’s band, performing throughout the eastern United States and Europe. After high school he picked up work as a musical clown in a traveling circus, then joined the Majestic Theatre Orchestra before finally heading the brass instruments department at the Utica Conservatory of Music. But show business was in his blood, and after a run as a bandleader and only marginal success as a vaudeville producer he eventually turned his efforts to movies, forming a production company and turning out more than 50 silent films.

BA Rolfe Master Mystery 1919
B.A Rolfe produced more than 50 silent films, including this one starring Harry Houdini.

Financial difficulties forced Rolfe out of that business and he took up his trumpet again and began performing as a solo artist. Eventually, inspired by the likes of Paul Whiteman and his “symphonic jazz”, Rolfe put together his own dance orchestra, and found a measure of success on the airwaves as master of ceremonies for the Lucky Strike Dance Hour.

The last strains of Bambalina fade, and Rolfe introduces another number, and after that, a waltz from the operetta The Merry Widow. The Merry Widow Waltz is already a “famous classic”, but in 1934 French actor and cabaret performer Maurice Chevalier will lend his charm to the film version of the operetta, and an Academy Award win for Best Art Direction will make the music just that much more popular. But for now, Rolfe’s Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra is doing justice to the notes, and you in your comfortable chair sway ever so slightly, dreaming up the feel of a hand at your back, leading you through the imaginary steps.

Then the music ends, and without a pause the never-named announcer brings listeners back to the real world, and makes the requisite pitch for the show’s sponsor. Tonight, the script-writers lead with Douglas Fairbanks, a founding member of the fledgling Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But you have never heard of an Oscar. The first of those diminutive gold statues won’t be handed out by the Academy for another year, although when they are, it will be Fairbanks hosting the show and shaking hands with his peers when they take their bows. Despite his many and varied contributions to the world of film (he helped start the School of Cinematic Arts in California, and was one of the founders of the United Artists studio), Fairbanks would never win an Oscar himself.

The radio announcer reads his text: “Douglas Fairbanks, America’s motion picture favourite, will soon appear in his new production of ‘The Iron Mask.’ This is a sequel to ‘The Three Musketeers’ with Mr. Fairbanks again playing the part of D’Artagnan.

douglas fairbanks lucky strikeThe characters however are more romantic and adventurous and Mr. Fairbanks considers the picture as a whole to be faster moving than any story he has ever brought to the screen.  The manufacturers of Lucky Strikes have requested me to read what Douglas Fairbanks has to say regarding the Lucky Strike Cigarette. Mr. Fairbanks says – ‘I get more kick from the Lucky Strike flavour than from any other cigarette. They are easier on my throat and wind. That’s why I smoke nothing but Luckies. Toasting really means a lot to me. My own experience has proven that toasting not only takes out the bad things but doubles the flavour.’”

You sigh and shift position. The hour grows late, and you want less talk and more music, and don’t care if Mr. Fairbanks smokes Luckies or Camels or even British Consols, which is unlikely, since they are a Canadian brand manufactured in Montreal, and Mr. Fairbanks, of course, is a Hollywood star.

Bandleader Rolfe announces the next couple of numbers, Crazy Rhythm, “a musical impediment of speech,” and Oh Evelyn, Stop Your Devilin, a song from the musical comedy Pom-Pom, and Mitzi’s favourite, according to Rolfe. He doesn’t share more details than that, but you know that Pom-Pom was released 12 years ago in 1916, and starred the “tiny prima donna from Hungary” Mitzi Hajos, whose name, the New York Times advised most helpfully, is pronounced “High-yuss.”

Pom-pom_(1916)_1
An ad for the 1916 musical Pom-Pom starring Hungarian singer and actress Mitzi Hajos. Despite her early success, mid-life brought work as a secretary at the Shubert Theatre in Brooklyn, NY.

Despite the aids to pronunciation, the “golden haired darling” eventually became convinced that her Hungarian surname would never “roll readily from the American tongue,” and she legally dropped Hajos to become plain Mitzi. But as the Reading Times of Pennsylvania declared, “plain…she could never be, as witness her dressed as a boy in Pom-Pom.”

Two more songs follow, and then the announcer speaks again, this time sharing the endorsement of Lucky Strike cigarettes by yet another famous person, the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. The script goes like this: “A short time ago the world was thrilled by the daring Amelia Earhart, the first woman ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean by airplane. Of Lucky Strike cigarettes Miss Earhart said ‘Lucky Strikes were the cigarettes carried on the Friendship when she crossed the Atlantic. We bought a carton in Newfoundland before we took off, because Luckies are best. On a long hard grind of this kind they were real life-savers, and were smoked continuously from Trepassey to Wales. I think nothing else helped so much to lessen the strain for all of us.'” You think about that, and picture the intrepid Miss Earhart earnestly puffing her way through her share of the carton of Luckies, clad in her aviator coveralls, leather cap with earflaps snugged beneath her chin, and wearing clumsy gloves to protect against the cold of the 20 hour flight. Presumably pilot Wilmer Stultz and flight mechanic Louis Gordon had found time to inhale the other two-thirds of the smokes despite fighting bad weather they’d thought had blown them off course, and almost running out of gas. Amelia drew the world’s attention with that trip, although by her own words she was “just baggage” and wouldn’t pilot her solo voyage across the Atlantic until 1932.

20141228204601!Amelia_Earhart_awaits_transatlantic_flight_1928
Pioneer female aviator Amelia Earhart in a photo taken just before the 1928 flight destined for “any port in England.”

Mr. Rolfe is back at the microphone, introducing five more numbers that float across the airwaves. You are yawning now, but the music is lively and keeps you in your chair, enjoying the beat of the “optimistic little melody, Old Man Sunshine,” and then the even spunkier Tiger Rag. But by the time the theme song plays to signal the end of the show, your eyelids are drooping and your hand props your chin. The announcer bids his listeners good night, and makes one last plug for the show’s sponsor. “This closes the program of one hour’s dance music presented for your pleasure by the manufacturers of Lucky Strike Cigarettes. The tunes that made Broadway, Broadway. Thank you.” But you do not hear those last sentences. You’re asleep, your breath coming evenly, your head tilted back on the cushion of that over-stuffed chair.

Sources

Lucky Strike Radio Hour transcript

Thurlow O. Cannon, “B.A. Rolfe – From Brasher Falls to Broadway to Broadcasting,” in The Quarterly, St. Lawrence County Historical Association, January 1981.

Pom-Pom Coming to the Academy, Reading Times, 8 February 1917.

http://www.biography.com

Douglas Fairbanks: The Extraordinary Life of Hollywood Founding Father, The Guardian online.

Mona Powder, Manx Perfume, and High-Class Boots


Shoemaker at workOur great grandparents, Harry and Mary Anne Deverill, moved out of the Borough to Lambeth around the time that Mary Anne’s sister Jennie and her husband Richard Vanson did the same. Richard and Jennie and their three girls lived just north of Harry and Mary Anne, in a block of artisans’ dwellings on Burdett Street off Westminster Bridge Road. You could follow the road west and travel across the Thames to a different world: the Houses of Parliament and the Clock Tower were there, with Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace just beyond. Like Harry and his brother Jack, who’d been in trade together, Richard disappeared from commercial directories around this time, so it seems he’d lost or given up his business as a boot repairer. But his new home in Burdett Chambers was very close to H & M Rayne, shoemakers to the theatrical crowd and, according to The Stage Year Book, “manufacturers and outfitters of every requisite for the stage.”

H & M Rayne opened for business in London in the mid-1880s, a collaboration between Henry Ryan and his wife Mary Clarke. Born in 1863 in Devonport, the son of an Irishman who’d joined the British Army, Henry lived for a time in India, then as a young man larked about the United States and France before returning to England. Mary was a Chelsea lass, and when she and Henry married, it was at the height of the Victorian fascination with all things theatrical. The advent of gas lighting, improved modes of transportation affordable to the average citizen, and a working class with a spare penny meant music halls flourished, packing all sorts of customers into venues such as the Alhambra in Leicester Square, or The Borough Music Hall on Union Street in Southwark. Henry and Mary saw an opportunity, and opened their doors at 115 Waterloo Road, selling “high-class stage boots and shoes” to music hall performers.

Theatre-Magazine-November-1902
Actress Henrietta Crosman in costume on the November 1902 issue of The Theatre magazine.

Henry was an astute businessman, and was surely well aware that anti-Irish sentiment was running high around this time, as the Irish nationalist Fenians had begun a “dynamite campaign,” targeting tube stations, the offices of Scotland Yard, and Westminster Abbey. Henry took an approach that would be copied by king and commoner decades later when England went to war against Germany, and changed his name from the Irish Ryan to Rayne, which he thought sounded French and would appeal to prospective customers. Presumably he also believed people would not frequent a shop co-owned by a woman, for although the ‘M’ in H & M Rayne was Mary, they prefaced the company name with Messrs, suggesting this was a partnership of men. They placed notices in publications like The Music Hall and Theatre Review, claiming to have received orders “from all parts of the world, the latest one coming from so distant a land as sunny Roumania.” They advertised in newspapers and trade journals touting their costumes and wigs, and exclusive products like their Manx perfume, and mona powder, “guaranteed to give the skin a velvety softness, and the velvety bloom of youth. Not too young, you know, but about eighteen.”

Rayne ad 1912
H & M Rayne’s full page advertisement in the 1912 issue of The Stage Year Book.

Before too long the stars of the music hall and theatrical world were H & M Rayne’s devoted customers, among them actresses like Gertie Millar, one of the most photographed women of her time, and Lillie Langtry, once mistress of the Prince of Wales. Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova bought Rayne’s dancing shoes, and the company featured her compliment in one of their advertisements: “Your shoes are beautiful.”

Gertie_Millar_as_Pierrot
Gertie Millar as Pierrot in 1909, and one of Rayne’s devoted clientele.

It’s possible our Richard Vanson worked for Rayne’s, hunched over a bench fixing shapely heels onto embroidered satin uppers, or attaching buttons to smooth leather shanks. But any record suggesting such a detail is long gone, and Richard died in 1911, just before the census that confirmed his niece Olive was employed at Rayne’s as an “apprentice theatrical costumer,” while his daughter Alice tried her hand there at “apprentice perruquier,” learning to create hairpieces and elaborate wigs, and, indirectly at least, receiving the accolade from renowned Scottish vaudevillian Harry Lauder that “the wigs are champion.”

Nineteen-eleven spelled the end for Mary Rayne too. She died on the 17th of February, an inmate of the Banstead Lunatic Asylum. Whether Mary had succumbed to the pressures of a successful business or there’d been other factors at play isn’t known, but in 1915, 52-year-old Henry followed her to the grave, passing the mantle of H & M Rayne to their son, Joseph. From humble beginnings, Mary and Henry’s company went on to earn three royal warrants, confirming that “Mdlle Adeline Genee, the world’s greatest dancer [was correct when she said] ‘The Boots and Shoes are Perfect.'”

Camargo_-Adeline_Genée
Danish/British dancer Adeline Genée, who thought Rayne’s boots and shoes were perfect.

Sources

The Stage Year Book, 1912

Music Hall Stars of the Nineties, George Le Roy. British Technical and General Press, 1952

Rayne Shoes for Stars, Michael Pick. ACC Art Books, 2015

A Manual of Shoemaking, William H. Dooley. Brown, Little & Co., 1912

Victoria and Albert Museum, The Story of Music Halls

Turtle Bunbury, The Irish Family Who Founded Rayne’s Shoes

eng.shoe-icons.com

 

 

The Canary Girls of WW1

cardboard ww1
A cardboard collecting box used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Imperial War Museum. © IWM (EPH 4196)

Despite the years of research that went into creating The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we still have many unanswered questions. The brick walls rise up especially around women’s stories, for women all too often disappear behind their men. This seems particularly true of the working class. In our family, in London, England, many of the women were factory workers or cleaners or laundresses; or they did piece work like book folding or sewing at home, where they could earn a living and look after little ones at the same time. It struck us that during WW1, these were the types of women who contributed anonymously to the war effort, with little remaining now to show the part they played.

Chapter 11 - Ethel Deverill circa 1920
Ethel Deverill worked at a cardboard box factory during the war. What were the boxes used for?

If they’d sewn clothes before the war, perhaps now they sewed any of the many parts that made up uniforms. If they’d made boots, perhaps now they made army boots. If they’d worked at a box factory, as did our grandmother’s sister, Ethel, perhaps now the boxes they made would hold ammunition, or gifts for men at the frontlines, or medical supplies. Other jobs opened up for women too — women became postal workers and bus drivers and farmers; they assisted the police and wore uniforms and blew whistles; they tended the wounded as doctors, nurses, and VADs; and they stepped up in droves to work in munitions factories.

One of our relatives married a male munitions worker in 1916. Her own occupation is not listed on the certificate, but as the 23-year-old daughter of a widowed cleaner, it’s likely she had to contribute to the household income. Did she work at the same factory as her beau? Is that how they met? No one can say now. Often the female munitions workers known about are the ones who died tragically, in an explosion or of TNT poisoning — the ones who survived are lost to history.

1916, wedding party Clara and Bert
The December 1916 wedding of munitions worker Bert Morel and Clara Donnelly. Clara’s cousin, our grandmother Doris, is seated far left. Just a few weeks after the wedding, the Silvertown Explosion took place at a TNT factory in east London. With 73 deaths and more than 400 injuries, the event must have been especially frightening for those connected to such a dangerous industry.
Margaret Silcock
From the Women’s War Work portrait collection at the Imperial War Museum, WWC M5

Even during the war, there was an attempt to recognize women’s contributions. Beginning in 1917, a group of women working for what would become the Imperial War Museum began gathering documentation — photographs, ephemera, written accounts — that showed the varied roles women were playing in the war. In preparation for a women’s work exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in October 1918, they wrote to the families of women who had died in service, and asked for photographs of them so that the exhibit could honour both the living and the dead. These wonderful photos remain in the IWM collection to this day, and some of the letters still exist too, and hint at the massive loss people suffered on a personal level. When 22-year-old Margaret Silcock died of trinitrotoluene (TNT) poisoning from her work at a munitions factory, her mother willingly sent a photograph, apologizing for its smallness. “It is the only one I have,” she explained, “and I can’t afford to get a bigger one as I only get 7/6 a week.”

alice post
Alice’s mother sent this photograph in response to a request from the Women’s Work committee. Her letter reads: “I should be pleased to hear further if there is anything more I can do, also will you kindly let me know if the museum is open to the public as either my daughter or myself should like to come….” IWM, WWC M11

Women like Margaret were known as Canary Girls because the explosive chemical they worked with often turned their skin yellow. Usually the effects wore off, but many died from exposure to TNT, which could cause anaemia and toxic jaundice. One of the early casualties was a young woman named Alice Post, who died in January of 1916. A newspaper reporting on the inquest into her death stated that she had begun working at a factory about five weeks before Christmas 1915, and walked a distance of 10 miles each day to get to the works and then home again. She ate well at first, but soon lost her appetite, and often complained of headaches and tiredness. The skin on her hands and forearms turned blotchy. She saw the factory’s doctor, but when she failed to get better, she was reluctant to seek medical help again — and by the time she did, it was too late. The post-mortem confirmed Alice had died from TNT poisoning, but the doctors interviewed also felt “the state of absolute tiredness” was a contributing factor, since she had such a long walk to and from work, and very little nourishment to energize her. “People in such a condition, below par, would absorb the poison very readily. The jury returned a verdict that death was due to poisoning by TNT, and added a rider that attention should be given to the washing of the overalls, and that sugar and milk should be provided with the cocoa given to the girls on their arrival at the works in the morning.”

gladys pritchard
IWM, WWC M27

As the war went on, safety regulations increased; but there were still fatalities, and the losses were often not the first a family had suffered. When a Welsh munitions worker named Gladys Irene Pritchard died in November 1916, the letter from the IWM’s women’s work committee must have been addressed to “Miss Pritchard,” for the response from Gladys’s sister reads:

“Please excuse me writing to say it is Mrs Pritchard and she was a widow before she died, her husband being killed on the 10th July 1916 leaving two children.”

A bit more searching reveals that Gladys Pritchard’s husband David, a private with the Welsh Regiment, was killed in action during the early days of the Battle of the Somme, and that the children, Joseph Henry and Victoria Lillian, were just five and two years old when their mother and father became two of the war’s mounting casualties.

lottie meade
Lottie’s husband wrote “Please return her photos has I have not got anymore … thanking you very much for what you are doing.” IWM, WWC M15

Likewise munitions worker Lottie Meade was the mother of three young ones when she died of TNT poisoning in Kensington Infirmary in October 1916. Her husband wrote to the women’s work committee that the death occurred “whilst myself was serving in France and [I] got home to late to see her alive.” The photograph he sent along for the Whitechapel exhibit shows Lottie posing proudly in her munitions coveralls; one can imagine it was a photo taken for him, and sent to the frontlines, and then brought home again, memento of a wife no longer alive. Did it surprise him to see her turned out this way, in pants and cap, making the ammunition that fed the weapons he used? How would the war have changed her future had Lottie Meade survived the poisoning? What was it like to live through a time that produced so much tragedy but also so many profound changes in women’s lives?

Lottie Meade’s death certificate lists the cause of death as: “coma due to disease of the liver, heart and kidneys consequent upon poisoning by tri nitro toluene,” and the verdict at the inquest was “death by misadventure.” An awful waste. But the picture suggests there was adventure in Lottie’s life too. The hand on the hip, the raised chin, the subtle yet confident smile — the stance of a woman making her own way in the world.

The women’s work exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery opened on October 7, 1918, and by the time it ended six weeks later, 82,000 people has passed through. The most popular part of the show was the “war shrine,” dedicated to the memory of more than 500 women who’d died in some form of service.

Sources:

Charlotte Meade, Lives of the First World War

Alice Post, Lives of the First World War

Gladys Irene Pritchard, Lives of the First World War

Margaret Silcock, Lives of First World War

The Silvertown Explosion, Lives of the First World War

A Closer Look at the Women’s Work Collection, Imperial War Museum

Lives of the First World War also contains 23 alphabetized “Wives and Daughters” communities as an attempt to document female deaths related to WW1.

Singing in the Streets of London

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

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

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

singing in the streets

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

 

“I am left a widow…”

Our great grandfather, Harry Deverill, began his working life with a shop of his own, an oil and colourman in a time when paints and pigments were mixed by hand and people bought lamp oil, stove polish, waxes and soap from their neighbourhood trader. The entrepreneurial spirit could be said to have been in his blood: his mother had tried her hand with a toy shop selling rag dolls and tin soldiers and wooden puzzles, and his father had gone bankrupt as a grocer only scant years after such a situation would have landed him in debtor’s prison. Harry too eventually moved on to take a regular job, but above them in the family tree was Harry’s grandmother, Mary Anna Bell Taylor, whose efforts, with odds stacked against her, proved somewhat more successful.

She and William Walker Taylor married in 1836 at St. Alphege Church, Greenwich, and she signed with a bold press of the pen on the line beneath his in the parish register. For the first two years of their married life they lived in Greenwich, but by the time their third child was born in 1839 they had moved to Lambeth, and in the handful of records that mention William Walker Taylor, he is consistently listed as an “engineer,” although in the merchant service rather than the navy. The family lived first in a “barge house” home where the sparkle of the sun on the Thames might have made up for the sucking mud at low tide and the stink of fish and raw sewage.

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

Within a year or so they’d moved back a few yards from the river into a curving street called Bishop’s Walk, across from the high walls that blocked the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace and garden. Like most couples just beginning married life, Mary Anna and William surely anticipated several decades together, and had plans. If William’s work took him from home now and again, Mary Anna was a capable young woman who could read and write, and could easily manage the household while he was gone.

Then in the chill days of autumn, 1846, 30-year-old Mary Anna became a widow with five children under the age of 10 dependent upon her. Unlike her Southwark counterpart in our family tree, the so-called Lazy Mary, Mary Anna did not succumb to the barriers in front of her, or end up in a workhouse, a “pauper charwoman.” Instead, she took stock of her situation and began a new chapter of her life. Twenty years later when Belle Otis wrote her book, Diary of a Milliner, she penned words that might have come from Mary Anna’s lips. “I am left a widow with the necessity upon me of getting my own living, and an abundance of vitality and energy wherewith to accomplish it. There is a something telling me it is for my good to be doing something. Doing! that is the word, – let the action be suited to it.”

Mary Anna did take action. She applied to send her oldest boy, George, to the Greenwich Royal Hospital School, where, according to Lloyd’s Illustrated News, “the candidates must be free from impediment of speech, or other infirmity. They derive their claims of admission from the comparative merits, services, and sufferings, of the father in the Royal Navy; regard being also had to the number and destitution of the family. The vacancies are filled up strictly on this principle; the admissions being carefully selected from the list of candidates by three of the principal officers of the Hospital, subject to the approval of the Governor.” The school must also have considered boys like George whose fathers served as merchant seamen, as many like George appear on the roles, or perhaps William Walker Taylor was seconded to the Royal Navy at some point, although no record exists to confirm.

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

Upon acceptance by the school of the eldest, Mary Anna promptly applied to send her second son, Charles, but for some unknown reason that application was denied. Instead, Charles went to live with his grandmother, and with her three youngest children Mary Anna returned to Greenwich where her brother had a tailor’s shop. Their father Isaiah had been a tailor, a member of both the Freemasons and the Associated Tailors’ Benefit Society, and when he died in 1831 he’d left Mary Anna and her brother his collection of books, and admonished them to “share and share alike.” That her father had left a will and goods to bequeath suggests he had at least small means, and in this, certainly, Mary Anna was already a step up the ladder from poor “Lazy Mary” in Southwark. No doubt Mary Anna did as Belle Otis would do, and considered her options, given that “woman in her present status is not fitted to undertake all kinds of business. Her manner of dress, and other habits, would make it rather inconvenient for her to go to the mast-head in a gale, or handle goods in a wholesale grocery establishment. She has as much as she can attend to out-of-doors to hold up her trailing garments, adjust her sun-shade, and make a graceful appearance…” And, like Belle, Mary Anna must have come to the conclusion that while she alone could not “change the social condition of woman,” she could instead “make the best of it.” So next door to her brother’s tailor shop in Turnpin Lane, she set up as a milliner, crafting tidy bonnets trimmed with lace and pleated fabric and fastened to the head with ribbons, as well as the more fashionable hats with narrow brims that dipped down in front and in back, and were secured by pins instead of ties. She soon had enough business that she employed an assistant, and took in her younger sister to help as a domestic.

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

According to the 1843 pamphlet The Guide to Trade: The Dress-Maker and The Milliner, such success was unusual without prior training. Most would have had to serve an apprenticeship, so maybe Mary Anna, daughter and sister of a tailor, had had that advantage prior to setting up on her own. If not, then perhaps she was simply what the Guide described as “an uncommon sort … clever, dexterous, observant, extremely earnest to learn, and so useful…” Mary Anna was lucky to have such a craft. Except for the very poor – those like our Lazy Mary – who worked as chars or fur-pullers or jam girls, and for whom so-called sweated labour was the norm, young women, widowed or not, were mostly unwelcome in the working world of men in the mid-Victorian era. Milliner was one of the few occupations a woman could undertake without tarnishing her respectability.

Yet such a concern does not seem to have troubled our Mary Anna. By the time she married her second husband, James Batten, she’d already borne him two children. Her new man was a “linen draper” from Whitechapel, so it’s not hard to imagine how they might have met, he flogging his fabric wares and she, as a milliner, and her brother, as a tailor, his ready customers. But James Batten seemed anxious to try new things, and while he changed careers several times, her name appeared regularly in the postal directories: “Batten, Mary (Mrs), milliner.”

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

Then finally, by 1871, Mr Batten fashioned himself into a neck-tie manufacturer, and this time the entrepreneurial Mary Anna became his business partner. Whether they were successful finding customers for their bat-wing bow ties, silk Ascots, and puffy cravats isn’t known, but James Batten didn’t live out the decade, and his death seems also to have spelled the end of Mary Anna’s commercial endeavours. In 1891 she made her final census appearance, listed on the schedule as a 74-year-old widow living in her daughter’s home. Under the heading “Occupation” the census-taker wrote “Dependent on Children,” and while the statement was no doubt correct, it remains a somewhat sad and inadequate notation about a woman who worked hard to make her own way in a difficult world.

Sources

Suicide of a Workhouse Midwife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

Descended of Rogues and Thieves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

 

 

Inspector of Nuisances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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