“The most undesirable reputation of any slum in London…”
It’s been a while since I investigated the black and blue streets of Victorian Southwark, where our story is set. But I was prompted to revisit when a follower of this blog sent a photograph taken in the same neighbourhood where our cowkeeper family lived from the 1830s to the 1900s. How fun to be corresponding with someone whose ancestors were neighbours of our own, and to think that perhaps they even knew each other. When he sent me the image, Dean Kenny wrote:
Attached is the photo of what looks like the start of a “boys’ day out.” I can’t imagine what state they might have been in on their return! In the background is Red Cross Court, Southwark. My great grandfather William TOAL was born at 1 Red Cross Court in 1871. He’s in this photo, the rather large man wearing the straw boater on our right of the photo. I don’t know the year the photo was taken.
William worked in a local stables as a labourer and the family were described as being very poor.
Familiar territory for sure. Our own family, chronicled in The Cowkeeper’s Wish, lived on Red Cross Street, near the intersection of Red Cross Court, and just around the corner from Dean’s family’s address on that dark little alley. The whole area was known for its crime and poverty, but Red Cross Court, especially, was notorious for decades — it had “the most undesirable reputation of any slum in London,” according to the South London Chronicle, which published many articles about Annie Bennett, “Terror of the Borough,” who apparently broke out of prison to see her “beloved slum” one last time before it was torn down.
Born in the early 1870s, Dean’s great grandfather William was close in age to our great grandmother, Mary Anne. They were infants one winter night when screams of “Murder” burst through the window next door to the Toals’ place. According to the Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper report on the trial that followed, a 45-year-old labourer named John Casey had come home drunk after New Year’s Eve celebrations, grabbed a razor, and attacked his wife Hannah, half asleep in their darkened bedroom. She put up her arms to protect her neck as he came at her, and her fingers and forearm were badly slashed. She jumped out of bed, rushed to the window and called out for help, and soon police arrived; John was taken into custody, and Hannah to nearby Guy’s Hospital. In the retelling at court a week later, John gave a different version: Hannah had been drunk “all the day and night, and had broken all the crockery and thrown the chairs out of the window. She attacked him as soon as he got into bed, and must have cut her arm falling against the fender.”
It’s impossible to know now whose version was true, or what crucial details were missing entirely, but what’s certain is that troubling stories of domestic violence — as well as theft, drunkenness, and general thuggery — were common in the neighbourhood, where poverty was the prevailing theme.
William Toal and our Mary Anne grew up among these dramas, and would have had an entirely different perspective than the ones largely available to us now — after all, the journalists and the anti-poverty activists of the day were all outsiders looking in on the area. Reporting on the proposed demolition of some of the Borough’s worst slum buildings in 1901, the South London Press wrote that: “There are also being demolished a number of courts which lie hidden behind Borough High-street, and which are associated with many of Dickens’s works … but, apart from fiction, one court alone, Redcross-court, once tenanted by the worst of London’s living population, was the scene during the last century of no less than 12 or 13 murders, whilst the charges of manslaughter that arose out of fights over the division of the spoil of robberies could not be counted.”
The philanthropist Charles Booth and his “social investigators” spent plenty of time in the area when they compiled their massive poverty study in the 1890s and early 1900s. A map accompanied the work, colour-coded to show poverty levels, with Black being the poorest of all. The reason you can’t quite see Red Cross Court in the Booth map below is precisely because it has been blackened to convey the deep level of poverty that existed there. Not for the first time I find myself wishing I could rub away the black to see these streets more clearly, and to know how people like William Toal and Mary Anne would have described their neighbourhood. How it might surprise them to know we are curious about them now, all these years later.