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, Newington Butts, a lodging house where George Vanson lived for thirteen years.

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

Two terrors of the Borough

Though our book is subtitled “a genealogical journey,” it isn’t filling in the family tree that excites me most. It’s the history — and the mystery! — that inspire me above all, and I suspect many genealogy enthusiasts are the same. Searching out the family story opens  windows into the past, through which all sorts of other stories appear. I can easily disappear down rabbit holes researching people totally unrelated to me, but using all the same tools I’d use to find my ancestors.

1900s Harry and Mary Ann sepia
Harry Deverill, with Mary Anne peering through the vine-framed window

Take, for instance, two “terrors of the Borough” I came across while hunting through the British Newspaper Archive for mentions of Red Cross Street, now Redcross Way, and the Southwark family home for decades. In 1891, our great grandmother, 18-year-old Mary Anne Evans, was living there with her aunt, since her father had died and her mother had disappeared into the local workhouse. Handsome young Harry Deverill, 21 that census year, had moved into the street, too, and was working as a grocer. Soon their romance blossomed, and they were married at St Saviour’s Church (now Southwark Cathedral) in 1895. Given the timing, and the fact that Mary Anne had grown up in the street, it seems certain that they would have known of the terrors, Annie Bennett and John “Caster” Cannon. Caster — sometimes Coster and Costy — lived in the Mowbray Buildings, rough tenement housing where Mary Anne’s troubled sister Ellen also lived after her marriage fell apart and she began her downward spiral.

Throughout the 1890s, articles about Caster Cannon pop up in the newspaper archive. He was a “sweep and pugilist” about the same age as Harry, and had a dangerous reputation in the neighbourhood, less for pummelling other boxers than for pummelling his neighbours. In 1891 he and a fellow fighter were caught up in the death of a betting agent; and in 1895, he and another man living in the Mowbray Buildings were charged with striking a man in the head with sticks. The man headed up a rival gang, and his thugs and Caster’s thugs — thieves and bullies of the Borough — were engaged in an ongoing feud. Caster was “quite at home in the dock,” the press reported, “[and] conducted his case with great ability.”

The following August, the Illustrated Police News ran a piece titled “Oh, What a Surprise!” and revealed that Caster had been charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting women. He’d appeared frequently before the court for violent assaults, the paper claimed, and was “notorious as one of the most dangerous characters in the Borough.” A crowd of locals gathered outside the courthouse, anxious to hear the outcome of the charges, but they were not allowed in.

bill sykes by fred barnard
Fred Barnard’s depiction of the vicious Bill Sikes and his dog Bull’s-eye, from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. “[Sikes] was a stoutly-built fellow of about five-and-thirty, in a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches, lace-up half boots, and grey cotton stockings, which inclosed a bulky pair of legs, with large swelling calves; the kind of legs, which in such costume, always look in an unfinished and incomplete state without a set of fetters to garnish them. He had a brown hat on his head, and a dirty belcher handkerchief round his neck: with the long frayed ends of which he smeared the beer from his face as he spoke. He disclosed, when he had done so, a broad heavy countenance with a beard of three days’ growth, and two scowling eyes; one of which displayed various parti-coloured symptoms of having been recently damaged by a blow.”
It seems Caster had been causing quite a stir in the street a few nights earlier, using “the vilest language possible and abusing his neighbours.” Police were called in by nine different people, mostly women, who alleged that Caster had assaulted them. One woman said he’d threatened to kill her, and struck her with a poker; another said he’d thrown a knife at her and threatened to kill her baby; a third said he’d spat in her face and thrown a flower pot at her. But each time a constable answered the call for help, Caster dashed inside and bolted his door. Finally, when a trio of constables came for him, he was apprehended.

After hearing the constable and the women testify, Caster claimed, “It’s all a pack of lies. These women want to put me away from my wife. I can’t be such a bad man, for I’ve got five little children and another one expected. I wish your worship would hear what my wife has to say.” But when his wife Mary Ann was called in, the magistrate asked her if she had recently come to him for a warrant against her husband, and she answered “Yes, sir. A week ago.” The charge of assaulting his wife was added to the other charges, and “the prisoner, who seemed dumbfounded by this turn of affairs, was then removed.”

A week later, another Borough brawl erupted in Caster’s absence, and this time  Annie Bennett was charged with disorderly conduct and using obscene language. Annie was a 27-year-old laundress who lived in Redcross Court, one of the dank little alleys that snaked off Red Cross Street. A constable had spotted her fighting with another woman, and though he separated them, Annie “would not go away when requested, and used disgusting language.” She said she’d “have the liver out of the other woman because she had helped to get Caster Cannon two months.” She was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour, but it was not the first or last time she’d appear before the magistrate.

Charles Mitchell
English pugilist Charles Mitchell was a contemporary of Caster Cannon. He was “a fighter in the full sense of the word … [and] had great pluck outside the ring as well as in it.” The Fighting Man by William A. Brady, 1916.
It didn’t take long for Caster to find trouble again once he’d done his time. In November, “John Cannon, who is described as a chimney sweep, but who is a well-known pugilist,” was charged with assaulting a fish curer named Ephraim Goodwin. It was another rivalry situation, and after a series of altercations between the two, Caster had appeared at Goodwin’s bedside one night, and punched him in the head as he lay sleeping. When the man woke, Caster punched him again “and then tried to ‘gnaw’ him.” Caster asked for leniency, since he had a wife and six children and was in poor health. The magistrate fined him £3, or one month’s time.

Reading on in the archive, it’s hard to muster sympathy for Caster Cannon. In early July of 1897, he approached the same magistrate, “a nervous individual seeking the protection of the court.” He claimed a gang of men had come into his lodgings in the middle of the night and threatened his life. The magistrate seemed amused by the “evident anxiety of the burly applicant,” but a week later, according to the Illustrated Police News in a piece headed “The Terror of the Borough,” Caster had indeed been beaten, and sat in court with his head “a mass of bandages.”

There were in all some six or seven charges and counter charges, to which the magistrate gave a very patient hearing, occupying nearly two hours. … Mary Shaw, wife of a costermonger, was the first complainant against Cannon. She alleged that Mike Smith, an ex-convict in her husband’s employment, refused to yield up to Cannon a shilling out of the day’s takings belonging to her husband, whereupon Cannon knocked him senseless with a blow in the stomach. The witness remonstrated, and Cannon struck her in the face, and threw a can of beer over her. Subsequently he emptied a quantity of filth over her barrow-load of strawberries. … Cannon was accustomed to demand money and beer of all comers. People in Redcross Court had put up with it, under fear of him, for years past. But when he moved to Queen’s Court, a few weeks ago, he tried the ‘same game’ with less success. She was aware that a party was made up to break into Cannon’s house, which was next door to hers, and to drag him out for punishment, but she was not the organiser of the party, nor did they rendezvous at her house. It was not true that her grievance against Cannon was that he objected to her boiling whelks in the copper, which belonged jointly to the two houses. Mike Smith corroborated Mrs. Shaw’s story, and charged Cannon with assaulting him, simply because he would not pay toll to the ‘bully of the court.’ … [He] was not one of the party who stormed Cannon’s abode at three o’clock in the morning, dragged him out of bed, and beat him black and blue, but he was glad to hear what had happened. … Passing from the dock to the witness-box Cannon gave his version of what had happened to him, and bitterly complained that a ‘mob’ of fifteen or twenty men broke down his door, smashed his furniture, beat him with sticks and pieces of iron while he was in his shirt, and would have killed him ‘like a rat’ but for the arrival of the police. … After further evidence, the magistrate said it was high time these disgraceful fights were put an end to, and sentenced Cannon and Selby, both of whom had been frequently convicted, to four months’ hard labour, and Smith to one month. On leaving the court, Selby rushed savagely at Cannon, and was narrowly prevented from again assaulting him. 

From then on, mentions of Caster as “the terror of the borough” begin to dwindle. But his defender, the laundress Annie Bennett, earned the same nickname for her ongoing wild behaviour. She was a small woman with sharp features and a quick tongue, her arms “freely tattooed” with the names of various lovers — a jealous woman once tried to scrape off one of those names with broken glass, but Annie fought back with fervour. In 1899, when she was charged with being drunk and disorderly, she was sentenced to a year in an inebriates’ home in Bristol. She called the constables liars who wouldn’t let anyone off, and let loose a stream of “violent language” as she was taken from court. One article said she was a habitual drunkard who had had many similar convictions, and had “frequently distinguished herself in the many skirmishes and battles with which the history of Redcross Court is studded.”

But I always wonder about the stories behind these stories, and the clues that suggest different tellings, different views of these old slums of Victorian London and the people who lived there. It was home to them, after all, and the people who often wrote about the slums were outsiders, with an outsider’s vantage point (just like me, now). Redcross Court, where Annie Bennett lived, “possessed the most undesirable reputation as any slum in London,” but after eight months of her sentence, Annie escaped the inebriates’ home and made her way straight back there. She was caught, and sentenced to three months in prison, and when that was over, she returned to the Borough immediately, only to be caught up in a brawl that landed her in front of the magistrate. He asked her why she’d escaped in the first place, only to cause herself more trouble, and she answered that she’d heard Redcross Court — dilapidated and overcrowded — was going to be torn down by London County Council, and she thought she would like to see it again before it was no more. The article mocks “the sentimental side” of “the lady in question,” and her wish to see “the last of her much-beloved slum.” But at the same time, her wish rings true, and makes me all the more curious about who she really was, and what her neighbourhood was like from an insider’s perspective.

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The Illustrated Police News was one of England’s early tabloids, and liked to focus on sensational stories. This was the front page of the issue that contained the piece about the “terror of the Borough” with his head swathed in bandages.

Sources

“Borough Roughs.” South London Chronicle, 10 August, 1895

“Caster Cannon Again.” South London Chronicle, 5 October, 1895

“Oh, What a Surprise!” Illustrated Police News, 22 August, 1896

“Life in the Borough.” South London Chronicle, 29 August, 1896

“The Rival Champions.” Daily Telegraph & Courier (London), 4 November, 1896

“‘Caster’ Cannon Again.” South London Chronicle, 3 July, 1897

“The Terror of the Borough.” Illustrated Police News, 17 July, 1897

“‘Terror’ Goes to Bath.” South London Press, 3 June, 1899

Page 5. South London Chronicle, 14 July, 1900.

“Habitual Drunkard’s Escape.” South London Press, 17 January, 1903

 

 

Uncovering the cover

various docs

Often when we visit with writers’ and researchers’ groups, we talk about the importance of layering your resources when you build a big multi-generational story like The Cowkeeper’s Wish. If you want to tell a social history as well as a family saga, as we were keen to do, you need to dig for details in all kinds of different places — in the census, birth and death records, of course, but also in the newspaper archive and in war diaries and philanthropist’s notebooks and so on and so forth. When we first began this project, we never imagined how many resources we’d use to search for clues to our family’s past. It is a thrilling experience, I can happily report. You start to feel a little like a detective when you do this kind of work, and the more practiced you become, of course, the better you are at sleuthing. I’m working on a new book now — not family-based this time, but also non-fiction, and set at the end of WW1, so I am using many of the same resources and approaches we used for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, and also realizing that I am hooked on telling true stories pulled piece by piece from the past. There’s no better job for someone who loves crumbly rippled ledgers and curled photographs and maps with streetnames that no longer exist.

Tracy has this same pull to the past, and so we were both delighted to see the cover design for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, which is in its own way a layering of resources. The images were cleverly put together by Anna Comfort O’Keeffe at Douglas & McIntyre, and each one she selected has a meaningful connection to the story.

The frilled gold on the outer edge of the cover image, as you can see here, comes from our grandmother’s baptismal certificate. You can see it is signed by E. C. Carter — that’s the Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter, who died just two years later on the Titanic. The family story goes that he and his wife Lilian (who my grandmother was named for) were dear friends of the family — though that’s probably not really true, since they came from very different backgrounds at a time when background really mattered. More likely, they were enormously admired by our family members, who must have been devastated when they died. The connection gave us a fresh new way to weave the story of the Titanic into our own tale.

This next layer in from the outer edge is a letter written by our great uncle, Joe Deverill, in 1923, saying goodbye to his younger siblings as they leave England for Canada. He offers brotherly advice — “mind who you mix with on the boat” — and urges them to remember that “although the (Old Home) has broken up we are still Sisters and Brothers and I would like you to write and let me know how you get on.”

Next in from Joe’s letter is a portion of Charles Booth’s poverty maps, made as part of his Inquiry into Life and Labour in London. Social investigators colour-coded the city as to level of poverty: black streets were vicious and criminal, dark blue were very poor with chronic want, on up to light blue, purple, pink, red and finally yellow, reserved for the wealthy upper classes. Booth’s maps, and the notebooks his investigators used to record their findings as they prowled the city, were an excellent way for us to “see” the neighbourhoods we were writing about.

metagama
The Metagama, courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-166332

The cover also features an image of the Metagama, the ship our grandmother came to Canada on, in the care of a family friend. It was 1919, and the ship had only recently been used as a troop carrier.

Below the Metagama is a photograph of our grandmother as a girl (with bathing cap), playing at the beach with her new Canadian friend. Beside them floats the lucky penny our great uncle Joe had kept in his pocket the day the Mary Rose sank. This mix of personal and historical imagery is an excellent fit with the book itself, which is both an intimate family story and a social history.

After years of research, seeing all these pieces of the puzzle worked into the cover image for our book was a lovely surprise, and still serves as a reminder of the many places that hold clues to the past for those who love to go searching.

Marrying your uncle, and other brow-raisers

As difficult as it was to select the few threads that would become the focus of The Cowkeeper’s Wish, in the interest of brevity we cut our great grandfather’s twice married but never divorced sister Kate, and the brother-in-law who claimed to be the son of an Indian Commissioner and knight, but who worked as a porter. To ensure the book did not end up as a massive tome we erased a several times great uncle – a publican whose son threatened to burn down his hotel — and we did not share the tangent we traveled to learn about George Duckworth, the aristocrat who worked unpaid for a decade to help Charles Booth with his extensive study of London’s poor. Duckworth’s detailed notes were invaluable to us in recreating the streets and places in The Cowkeeper’s Wish, but, horribly, he was accused of molesting his half-sisters, writer Virginia Woolf and painter Vanessa Bell.

Brow-raisers aplenty we’ve stumbled across while writing and researching, and it seems there’s no single branch of our gnarled tree that does not contain a knot or two. Even the family ensconced in what Duckworth called “happy Plumstead,” with its grassy heaths and heady woodlands and the scent of flowers in the air, had its surprises.

plumstead
Plumstead, Kent, around 1905…where “bluebells carpet the woods.” (Postcard courtesy of ideal-homes.org.uk)

Let me begin with Edwin Curtis, our great grandmother Emily’s forebear, and a cowkeeper like the Benjamin Jones in our book title, although in rather different circumstances. Edwin came to the dairy trade in a roundabout way. The second son of a butcher and grocer, he’d grown up in Salperton, Gloucestershire, in the heart of southwest England’s Cotswold Hills. He spent his unmarried years working as an agriculture labourer, but by the time he wed his wife Elizabeth Bryant in 1859, he and his father had swapped occupations – Edwin was the butcher and his father a farmer. But like Benjamin Jones and so many others before him, Edwin saw his future elsewhere. Instead of choosing the life of a city dweller for himself and his cows as Benjamin had done, Edwin’s path took him to High Grove Farm in Plumstead, where his cattle, eating sweet grass and drinking clean water, presumably enjoyed an existence more pleasant than Benjamin’s cows, housed in the muck and foul air of the Borough. Though just twelve miles from London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, George Duckworth noted, here “nightingales still sing, pheasants are still preserved, and bluebells carpet the woods.”

In this seemingly idyllic setting Edwin and Elizabeth raised a family of six children. When they died within a few years of each other soon after the turn of the century, the farm was passed down to two of their sons who, at age 48 and 37, had remained unmarried. While the elder of the brothers had a job at one of the many factories that had sprung up on the flats down by the Thames, and in his off hours tended the farm’s horses, the younger worked full time on the farm, following in his father’s footsteps as a cowkeeper. But there are no tales of filthy, diluted milk here, as there was with Benjamin Jones. Instead, the surprise that surfaced in this story was the teenage niece, Bea, who lived with them, helping out as a housekeeper, although it seems more was going on than the sweeping of floors and the washing of dishes.

Can you marry your uncle? According to the Table of Kindred and Affinity found at the back of the Anglican Book of Prayer “Wherein, Whosoever are related, are forbidden in Scripture, and our laws, to Marry together,” the answer is no, and has been since at least 1560, when the table was first established.

table_of_kindred_and_affinity_-_geograph.org.uk_-_537038
The Church of England’s Table of Kindred and Affinity: “A Man may not Marry his Sister’s Daughter”

But in “happy Plumstead,” amongst the blooms of June 1913, Bea and her uncle did just that at the Woolwich Registry Office, where a Notice of Intention to Marry would have been posted for three weeks prior to the event. Presumably no one stepped forward to object, but it’s hard not to suppose there would have been whispers behind hands, elbows nudged, and glances exchanged, for surely within that relatively small community people knew of the close relationship, and that it was illegal, and, most would judge, immoral. And yet it occurred, and the official record remains to prove it, duly signed by the registrar and the deputy superintendent who performed the ceremony. Signing as witnesses to the ceremony were the older brother of the groom (another uncle to the bride), and someone with the same last name and first initial as the bride’s mother, although almost ten years earlier that same woman had disowned another daughter, our great grandmother Emily, for reasons that can only be speculation a century and more gone. And yet what can have been Emily’s crime, if the mother approved of such a match for her sister Bea?

Family historians are innately curious, as are writers, and when a tidbit such as the estrangement of a mother and her daughter is dangled before us, how can we help but try to figure out why such a thing might have happened? In this case, the obvious reason for the parting of ways seemed to be Emily’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, established by the date of her marriage and the birth date of her first child. But if this was the reason for the mother’s harsh treatment, it was sadly hypocritical, for records show the mother herself had been a pregnant bride. Perhaps the mother had simply disliked George, her daughter’s chosen husband. But this too seemed unlikely. George was by all accounts an amiable, capable, dependable fellow who loved Emily, and had been friendly with her family for years before he and Emily married.

baby alice and m.a. elizabeth curtis-ingram circa 1907
Emily’s mother, who disowned her for unknown reasons, and Emily’s much younger sister Alice, circa 1907

Some things are simply unknowable, and it appeared we would never find out what had occurred to cause the rift between mother and daughter. Then, soon after The Cowkeeper’s Wish went to print, we came across an item in The Kentish Independent newspaper, dating from 1906. “Robbing Uncle,” was the headline, and there, in black and white, was a story that had not been passed down through the generations. Our great grandmother, employed to do housework at her uncle’s dairy farm, had stolen money from him – twice – and been caught. The uncle was the same man who would later marry her sister.

The article tells us that the uncle had noticed money missing from the locked box in his bedroom, and went to the police. They set a trap for the thief, placing twenty marked sovereigns in the box, and leaving the key in its usual location, the pocket of the uncle’s coat. When several of the marked coins immediately went missing, the police arrested Emily, hauling her off a tram and bringing her back to the scene of the crime. A dramatic encounter followed, with Emily pulling the coins from her stocking and pleading for leniency.

“Please don’t prosecute me, Steve,” the newspaper quoted, “I will give [the money] back. …  I have only had the two lots. I took [it] because I was going to have a little one, and had not money.”

Detective Sergeant Webber, testifying at the hearing, told the magistrate that Emily “was a perfectly respectable woman, and her husband, who was in court, was willing to repay the [money] if he was given a few days.” In the end, though, the magistrate felt it best to continue with prosecution, and sent her for trial at the South London Sessions. No record has been found to give us details of that awful experience, but the judge must have decided to be lenient, perhaps at her uncle’s request, or maybe because Emily and her husband revealed plans to emigrate to Canada, which they did the following year.robbing uncle

But even this sorry tale does not tell the whole story of the estrangement. If the theft was the reason for the rift, why did the mother (according to family lore) refuse to attend Emily’s wedding, which had taken place before the incident? Sadly, the dispute between them remained unresolved, and they never again spoke or even wrote to one another.

Years later, after both women had died, one of Emily’s sons visited the town she’d left all that time ago, and found not only long lost aunts, uncles and cousins, but a warm welcome besides.

Sources

  • booth.lse.ac.uk/notebooks
  • “Robbing Uncle”, The Kentish Independent, August 31, 1906
  • churchofengland.org

Christmas weddings in Victorian England

V&A Christmas birds
A Victorian Christmas card, circa 1860-1880, courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum

 

It was a coster wedding, at which, by lucky chance, I once happened to be present. … It was difficult at first to distinguish which were the bride and bridegroom-elect; but there was one lad, the splendour of whose tie and the redundance of whose buttons proclaimed him to be the happy man; and on his arm there leaned a maid whose face shone with soap and happiness, and the feathers of whose hat stood out several inches further over its brim than those on the headgear of her companions, and therefore marked her as the bride.

“A Costermonger’s Wedding,” Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, 1912

During the years of researching our family’s path through Victorian England, we came upon a number of marriages that took place on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Working class people typically worked six days a week in those times, and these were two days that they and their relatives could probably count on having to themselves. On top of that, churches often offered their services free or at reduced rates on Christmas, and a flip through marriage registers shows a definite spike in the number of ceremonies performed.

lady chapel st saviour's
The Lady Chapel in St. Saviour’s Church, where Jennie Evans and Richard Vanson were married. From The History of the Collegiate Church of St. Saviour, 1894.

Our great grandmother’s sister, Jennie Evans, married her shoemaker love Richard Vanson on December 25, 1890, at St. Saviour’s Church in Southwark. Nowadays St. Saviour’s is the beautiful Southwark Cathedral, but at the time of Jennie’s wedding, it was in the midst of a long overdue renovation that would transform it from “as vile a preaching-place as ever disgraced the 19th century” into a glorious place of worship.

The ongoing work made the normally large church tiny, and the only place in use at the time of Jennie and Richard’s wedding was the ancient and intimate Lady Chapel, a portion of St. Saviour’s that had not been spoiled in earlier renovations. Jennie’s sister (our great grandmother) and her brother-in-law signed as witnesses to their union.

The minister was busier than usual that day. The register shows 13 couples were joined in holy matrimony on the 25th, more than double the amount that took place in all of December. The grooms list jobs like lighterman, brush maker, and varnish maker, and hail from addresses close to Jennie and Richard’s on Red Cross Street, so they were no doubt poor, and happy to reap the benefits of marrying on Christmas Day.

The tradition had begun years earlier, and continued for decades, though it’s a challenge to find out what such weddings were really like, since the people who wrote about the working class — however fine their intentions — were often not of that class themselves, but rather outsiders looking in. In 1866 the writer and social explorer James Greenwood described “penny wedders” arriving at a London church, and wrote of a guest: “[his] attire was not at all of a bridal character, and consisted of greasy fustian, and a dirty cotton neckerchief wisped about the collar of his blue-checked shirt. His face was dirty, too, as were his hands — a fault he seemingly was not unconscious of, as from time to time he gave them a sly rub on his coat-tail.”

As more couples poured in to the church to be married, writes Greenwood, “sight-seers flocked in to see the fun. The candidates for matrimony were nearly all of the very lowest order, and the marrying couples were, as a rule, very young. There were exceptions however. In one case an old man, at least sixty, had brought to the altar an old woman as old as himself, and who wore on her marriage finger as many plain rings as should and doubtless would have been a caution to the old gentleman had they each represented a previous espousal; but they did not. A fancy for wearing plain rings prevails amongst many barrow-women, and they prefer them to stone rings. There was another instance of middle-aged folks coming together, and one that was rendered remarkable from the fact of the parents bringing with them a troop of illegitimate children—the eldest a lanky boy of fifteen—to see them ‘made honest.’ I gathered this fact from the buzzing and whispering about me, and it was curious to note the variety of opinion that prevailed on the subject. Some said it was a good thing, and ‘better late than never.’ Others, that it was a bad thing, and a pity that some people must make ‘poppy shows of theirselves.'”

Christmas weddings certainly happened because people were poor and had little time away from their jobs. An 1865 article notes that a Lambeth clergyman had to commence his marriage ceremonies at 8 a.m. that Christmas in order to get through them all. And in 1899 in the East End, some 84 ceremonies were performed at one church. “They were mostly the costermonger class,” the article notes. “They were accompanied by large numbers of their friends, and crowds of people assembled outside the building and saluted each departing couple with showers of rice and confetti. The proceedings were enlivened with selections from mouth-organs.” There are stories of couples being married five at a time, and even a dozen at a time, “and it is satisfactory to know that the various husbands and wives paired off happily, without any ill results of this great ‘mix.'”

Sadly, there are few proper wedding portraits in our family archive from this period, and an online search for Victorian weddings more commonly turns up images of privileged people. At one extreme end of the spectrum, Prince George and Mary of Teck married just a few years after Jennie and Richard, and the opulent setting is depicted in this Laurits Tuxen painting, where light streams through the chapel windows at St. James Palace, and the jewels and taffeta shine.

prince george and mary of teck laurits tuxen
The Marriage of George, Duke of York, with Princess Mary of Teck, 6 July 1893. Courtesy Royal Collection Trust.

Bargain Christmas weddings continued well into the 20th century, and really only began to die out as working conditions improved. The practice was still in place during WW1, when our ancestor Clara Donnelly married a munitions worker named Bert Morel. Listed alongside them in the register that day and the next are other munitions workers and soldiers marrying their brides, and perhaps adding “Happy Christmas” after the “I do.”

1916, wedding party Clara and Bert
Munitions worker Charles Bertram Morel and Clara Donnelly married in Lambeth on Christmas Eve in 1916

Sources

“84 Couples Married at One Church.” Coventry Evening Telegraph, 26 December, 1899.

“Christmas Marriage in Birmingham.” Leicester Chronicle, 3 January, 1891.

“Christmas Marriages at St. Mary’s.” South London Press, 30 December, 1865.

“At a Penny Wedding.” Shields Daily News, 25 September, 1866.

The History of the Collegiate Church of St. Saviour. Rev. W. Thompson, 1894.

The Marriage of George, Duke of York, with Princess Mary of Teck, July 1893. By Laurits Regner Tuxen, Royal Collection Trust.

A Costermonger’s Wedding.” Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, 1912.

James Greenwood: The Victorianist

Germans in England in WW1

Royal-group-including-Queen-Victoria-and-Wilhelm-II-Emperor-of-Germany-and-King-of-Prussia
Taken in the 1890s, the image gives a glimpse of German-English connections in the Royal Family. Queen Victoria and her daughter Victoria, then German empress, are seated in front. Standing behind them, far right, is Queen Victoria’s son Edward, who would soon become king. Standing next to him, Empress Victoria’s son, and so Queen Victoria’s grandson, Wilhelm, Kaiser of Germany in WW1. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Since the very hefty middle part of The Cowkeeper’s Wish is set in WW1, we were especially intrigued by a branch of the family with German connections. Our grandmother’s aunt, Nellie Deverill, married a man named Percy Kraushaar in the early 1900s. Though Percy’s great-great grandparents had arrived in England from Germany a century or so earlier — long before our own Benjamin and Margaret walked from Wales to London with their cows — it seems it wasn’t until the WW1 era that some members of the Kraushaar family anglicized their name. A 1919 notice in the Gazette reported, “I, Albert Henry Crawshaw, a natural-born British subject … now serving in His Majesty’s Army, heretofore called and known by the name of Albert Augustus Henry Kraushaar, hereby give public notice … I absolutely renounced and abandoned the use of my former Christian name of Augustus and my former surname of Kraushaar, and then assumed and adopted and determined to use and subscribe the name of Albert Henry Crawshaw.”

king george punch
King George sweeps away his German titles. Punch, 1917.

There was plenty of hostility towards Germans in England in those years, and even people who had stronger ties to England than the country of their ancestry sometimes felt a need to distance themselves. The royal family’s own lineage was German through almost all of its branches, and in July 1917, King George V issued a proclamation “relinquishing the use of all German Titles and Dignities.”

Right around this time, papers reported riots in which angry groups smashed the windows of German bakers and butchers, throwing loaves of bread into the street and demolishing furniture. A shop owner with “a continental name” had his window cracked before he could convince the rioters that he was French rather than German. Another felt compelled to chalk in big block letters on the wall outside his store “WE ARE RUSSIANS,” but even when police managed to get in front of the crowds, stones were thrown over their heads and glass shattered.

Life must have been difficult for soldiers with German surnames. One man I came upon while researching Cane Hill Asylum, where our great grandmother was a patient in 1917, suffered delusions connected to his German ancestry. According to Charles Fray’s military record, “He began to imagine some months ago that people in the streets gesticulated at him and made disparaging remarks about him. Subsequently he imagined that the men at his regiment poisoned his food. Since admission he has … voices telling him that he is to be made away with because he is a spy…. The man is of German parentage, hence the nature of the delusions.”

emil heitmann
Emil Heitmann in uniform, some time during the First World War.

Recently I was intrigued to learn of Mizpah Cousins, the work of a woman who has researched her family story, rooted in both England and Germany. Margaret Lossl‘s grandfather, Emil Heitmann, had come at age 19 from Germany to London in 1908 and found work at a first-class hotel as a waiter. The job came with a posh flat, and life got even better when he fell in love with Agnes Meyer, London-born but of German extraction. Soon she was pregnant, and shortly before baby Emma was born, they married.

Margaret thinks that when her grandparents decided to marry, Emil had to acquire his birth certificate from the German embassy, and it was this that alerted the government to the fact that he had not completed his obligatory military training. He was called home late in 1911, and his little family went with him. More children were born in Germany.

Had Emil Heitmann not returned to Germany, he probably would have been sent to the internment camp at Alexandra Palace for the duration of the war. This was the fate of other members of Margaret’s family. Many lost their jobs, she says, and everyone gave up speaking German. In 1914, the palace was used as a place of refuge for Belgians who had escaped their country when Germany invaded. But soon it became a sort of prison for “enemy aliens” — Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians living in England when the war began, many married to British women. Between 1915 and 1919, the palace received about 3,000 prisoners. As one man put it, “the breaking up and ruin of mostly English-raised families” was unbearable.

Alexandra Palace
Sleeping accommodation in the Small Hall at Alexandra Palace. ©IWM (Q 64158)

Emil served with the German army, and Agnes remained with their children in Hamburg, separated from the rest of her family. It’s hard to imagine what such a situation must have been like. War was difficult for the average person on each side, but having ties to both sides must have been at times excruciating. Having inherited the postcards and letters Emil sent to Agnes over the course of the war, Margaret was able to research her grandparents’ war experience in Germany, and to weave this with the story of the relatives Agnes left behind in London’s East End. The “perilous predicaments,” as Margaret puts it, sound fascinating.

Sources and further reading

“Anti-German Riots in London.” Leeds Mercury, 9 July, 1917.

Lives of the First World War: Charles Frederick William Fray

Lives of the First World War: Soldiers with German or Austrian Parents

Mizpah Cousins: Life, love and perilous predicaments during the Great War era by Margaret Lossl

National Archives: Wettin to Windsor: Changing the Royal Name

National Archives: Daily Life at Alexandra Palace Internment Camp

 

“Sudden mental derangement” at East India House

Tracy and I would never call ourselves genealogists, and there are many extremely skilled people out there who know research tricks we’ve never even thought of. We’re just a couple of curious and tenacious writers who love history and putting our family story in context. When we came upon the anecdote of our ancestors, Benjamin Jones and Margaret Davies, walking from Wales to London with their cows in search of a better life, it seemed the natural start for our story. And we were a bit relieved not to have to peer yet further into these distant branches of the Welsh part of our tree, where suddenly everyone was named Jones and Davies and Evans. There was even a John Jones and a David Davies and an Evan Evans! Instead, we went forward, following the path of our family over the next hundred years or so, where luckily they mixed with others who had more easily searchable names. For all we’ve discovered, I’m still intrigued by what came before, and a little in awe of people who’ve traced their families back much further than we have. Sisters Alison Botterill and Fiona Duxbury, whose grandmother we wrote about a while back in An Unknown Soldier and an Unconventional Woman, have done extensive research on many different branches of their family, and find themselves most curious about a line that was wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but whose station declined over time. Much as we did in preparation for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, the sisters have written short pieces about members of their family in order to put the bigger story in perspective, and have generously agreed to share one here.

East India House, Leadenhall
East India House, Leadenhall Street, shortly after its reconstruction in the late 1790s. Courtesy the British Library.

A Sad Tale

A very melancholy circumstance happened yesterday forenoon. Mr John Burford, Clerk to the Committee of East India Directors for Buying threw himself out of a one-pair-of-stairs window, under the new portico of the India House, Leadenhall Street. His head was broken to atoms and he only survived a few minutes. He was taken into the House where his body will lie till the Coroner’s Jury give their verdict this day. The cause of this fatal accident can only be attributed to sudden mental derangement as Mr Burford had regularly transacted his business in the office, tho’ he had for some time appeared rather dejected. He had been only two minutes in the room, where there were other Clerks, when he opened the window, and suddenly sprang out of it, in the sight of a number of people.

8 May, 1800, The Times

India_House wiki
This image shows the portico, the site of John’s suicide, more clearly. The “one-pair-of-stairs window” simply means the upper floor. A search through the British Newspaper Archive reveals all sorts of people throwing themselves from one, two, and three pair-of-stairs windows. See also the poem, “From a Fourth-Pair Window.”

John was born in 1748, one of three sons of Richard Burford, a distiller of Wapping, whose family had been in that business for at least four generations. His elder brother Richard was a Blackwell Hall factor and the largest supplier of broadcloth to the East India Company, and his younger brother, Jonathan Sommers Burford, worked in the Pay Office at that company.

John married Lucy Elsden of Kings Lynn in 1786 and they had 8 children, at least two of them dying in childhood. Lucy’s mother was Elizabeth Rolfe, of that Norfolk family made famous by an ancestor, John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas in the early 17th century in America (and not John Smith as per the Disney film, although he was the man she saved from death). Her father, Edmund Elsden, was a very wealthy Norfolk merchant who left a fortune at his death in 1793. At the time of Lucy and John’s marriage it must be assumed John was on a sound financial footing – her sisters also made very good marriages to rich men – as it is unlikely her father would have otherwise allowed the marriage.

John had been appointed to the role of Assistant Clerk to the Committee of Buying in 1772 and ten years later was promoted to the position of Clerk.   At the time of his marriage he was living in Lothbury, in the City of London, with his brother Richard, but then moved with his new wife to a house at no. 2 Artillery Place, just off Finsbury Square where Richard had relocated to. Jonathan Sommers Burford and his family were living in Great  James Street, Bedford Row, its smart Georgian terraces still surviving.

Screen Shot 2018-11-19 at 11.14.20 AM
An excerpt from the Old Bailey trial two years before John’s death. The full account can be seen at the wonderful Old Bailey site, including the fate of those convicted of the crime.

In December 1798 John and Lucy were burgled at home of a large number of items, mainly clothes, and both of them appeared as witnesses at the Old Bailey. Of the four accused, two were found guilty and sentenced to death.

A few months after John’s death, Richard was issued with a notice for bankruptcy and he was summoned to appear before the bankruptcy court in September 1800. Having looked at various registers at the East India Library, it is apparent just how fortunes were made and lost, given that in the later part of the 18th century Richard was turning over around £90,000 each year.

John wrote his will in 1796 naming his wife and brother Richard as executors. Curiously, he requested that he be buried in the vault with his “dear sister-in-law,” Mrs Richard Burford, in Finchley.  The burial records for St Mary’s, Finchley, show that this is indeed what happened despite his death being by his own hand. His brother Jonathan Sommers Burford appeared as witness to the will on John’s death.

To date I have found no reference to John’s suicide in the East India Company records held at the British Library. Perhaps he had secretly been giving his brother Richard preference over other suppliers to the company and this had been discovered? Perhaps the burglary had affected him badly? Perhaps, given his father-in-law’s successful business ventures and those of his sister-in-laws’ husbands, he felt a great deal of shame about Richard’s  impending bankruptcy? (Later his other brother, Jonathan Sommers Burford, would face financial difficulties too.) Perhaps he felt the loss of his baby son Edward in the February of 1800, aged only 2 months, very deeply? (Lucy was to lose their eldest son John the following year, aged only 8). Or perhaps the request in his will to be buried with Richard’s wife hints at some darker family scandal? Sadly, we will probably never discover the reasons why he should have felt the need to end it all.

© Alison Botterill & Fiona Duxbury

Our grandmother’s scrapbook

Doris passport, 1918
Doris Deverill’s passport photo, 1919

Tracy and I are heading off to London, Ontario, this weekend to talk about The Cowkeeper’s Wish, so we are naturally thinking about our grandmother, Doris Deverill, whose story first inspired us to write the book. We used a wealth of resources to piece together the century-long tale, but the most treasured ones came from our own family archive.

The following article tells a little about that collection, and some of our mishaps along the way. The story first appeared earlier this year in the Alberta Genealogical Society’s journal, Relatively Speaking.

Several years ago my sister and I set out to tell the story of the British side of our family, from our Welsh 3xgreat grandfather, who walked to London, England, with his wife and his cows in the 1840s, right on down to our grandmother’s marriage nearly a century later in London, Ontario. We aren’t professional genealogists by any stretch, but rather writers who share a passion for family history and great stories. Armed with an abundance of curiosity, we scrutinized all the essential documents: census, birth, marriage and death records, and also workhouse and asylum ledgers, old newspapers, passenger lists and immigration papers. We looked everywhere for our people, and got chills whenever we found them. Some of the loveliest material had been passed down from the very people we were writing about: letters and postcards with strings of x’s, embossed funeral cards, a lucky penny that went through the war with a sailor-great-uncle, and an array of photographs. Treasured possessions, all, and a gold mine for researchers who like to read between the layers of everything they encounter.

Chapter 15 - Bebbie and Doris, 1920s
Doris with Martha Bedford, whom she called Bebbie, in London, Ontario in the 1920s

Our grandmother, Doris Deverill, was born in Whitechapel in 1910, and emigrated to Canada in 1919. Her childhood had been infused by war, and both her parents were dead. She was now under the care of a family friend named Martha, a woman she loved dearly, but it must have been devastating to leave her siblings, her friends, and everything she’d known to cross the ocean and start somewhere new. Maybe it was this monumental loss that caused her to paste the postcards she received, for years afterwards, into a scrapbook. Or maybe it was just a young girl’s admiration for pretty pictures. The cards featured sweet little girls holding kittens or puppies, the images often tinted to give them an even more tender look than they’d have in sepia. And the text usually matched the pictures’ sentimental themes:

Chapter 15 - Post card from Ethel, circa 1920.jpg

But when I say the postcards were pasted into the scrapbook, they really were pasted. It’s impossible to know, now, what she used to adhere them to the pages; though many of the cards date from the 1910s and 20s, she may have re-glued them later, or even started the project later in her life, gathering the loose pieces she’d collected over the years. Regardless, it was obviously the cards themselves our grandmother had been preserving rather than the messages on the backs. She would never have imagined that, long after her death, anyone would want to know what the postcards said or who they were from.

We, of course, were itching to know. As we flipped carefully through the book, turning the thick pages, we pried at the corners of the cards just gently to test how easily they might be released, curious to know what secrets would spill forth once we saw them. For though so much can be gleaned from historical records, these personal artefacts had been held by the very people we were searching for. A postcard had been chosen just for Doris in some little English shop by an auntie, a sister, a cousin; had been written on and stamped and mailed, had traveled all that distance by ship, just like Doris herself, and then been brought to the door by the postman, and she had happily received it and devoured the message with her fingers carefully placed at the card’s edges, no doubt, so as not to muss the pretty picture.

Over the years of our research, we often longed for more of these kinds of resources to help us unravel the family story. We’d sometimes joke with each other by email as we slogged through the many dry spells of our research periods: “You’ll never guess! I found the cowkeeper’s wife’s diary from 1842! She recounts their travels from Wales; how long it took them and all the strange things they encountered, and their first impressions of London when they landed there, the cows weak and weary and their own feet blistered and sore! There are delicate pressed wildflowers inside, and little drawings in the margins!”

Of course, there was no such diary; and on actual records, the cowkeeper’s wife had signed her name with an x, so likely she could not have written one anyway, even if she’d cared to. But we did have Doris’s scrapbook – and with a variety of approaches we had some success in releasing the postcards from an almost century-old grip. Some were sawed free with dental floss; some were steamed or blow dried; some soaked in tiny baths. It was a bit like taking the scrapbook to the spa, and pampering it to give over its secrets. And it was beyond exciting, even though, to be honest, most of the postcards had fairly mundane messages, such as:

Chapter 15 - Reverse of post card from Ethel

Ernest Biss postcardAnother featured a hand-drawn rose on its front, meticulously painted, and signed Ernest Biss. We didn’t want to soak this one for fear that the rose would disappear, so we carefully steamed it loose and watched it curl at the edges. The rose suffered a little from our efforts, and we lost some of the message on the back – but once again, it seemed disappointingly spare anyway. But we had a name, at least, and with a bit of sleuthing we discovered that Ernest was about 19 the year Doris left for Canada; he was her neighbour in College Buildings in Whitechapel, and his father was the verger at nearby St. Jude’s church, where she was baptized. Their families would have shared the same dismay when the Titanic went down, taking with it the church’s beloved minister Ernest Courtenay Carter and his wife Lilian. Doris was given the middle name Lilian for Lilian Carter; was Ernest likewise named for Ernest?

What became of Ernest Biss and his drawing abilities? We can follow him in various documents through the years, but his link with Doris remains a mystery. Did they correspond after Doris and Martha left for Canada? If so, there is no trace of an exchange, and only the rose remains.

The wordiest postcard in Doris’s scrapbook depicted the ship Metagama, which brought Doris to Canada. Metagama was a passenger ship launched in spring 1914, but soon pressed into service as a troop carrier during WW1. In 1919, when Doris was on board, there were still plenty of soldier-passengers making their way home. Doris and Martha were just two of 1,300 souls on board, arriving in Montreal after a nine-day journey. From there, before boarding a train to London, Martha sent the card to Doris’s brother Joe. Doris wouldn’t see Joe again for about 40 years, which means he either sent the postcard back to her as a keepsake, or held onto it all that time and offered it in person, when she returned to her birthplace as middle-aged woman.

We tried all the methods to free the postcard from the album, but when it came loose the writing was still covered by a fuzzed layer of the album’s paper. So we kept steaming, peeling, stopping, discussing. Then we’d peel, stop, discuss some more. The postcard was like a scab that shouldn’t be picked – but imagine what it might tell us, having been written on the very journey that opened the door for our own existence. Surely it was a little diary of sorts, but real this time, and in our possession!

In the end, we got the layer of album paper off of the post card, but most of the words came away with it. We held the bits of paper up to the light, and we peered at all the remnants with a magnifying glass, but much of the message had been lost to us. We were left with:

Arrived quite safe this morning at 6 o’clock. We had a very … Write you later on.

Had a very what? Difficult journey? Wonderful journey? Big breakfast? Bad fight? Tearful goodbye with fellow passengers? Though the family correspondence had never been terribly revelatory, the loss still felt awful, since first-person accounts in the histories of ordinary people are rare wonders, no matter how mundane. And yet, our story got told anyway; built bit by bit like an intricate collage. When I think back to our wrong turns, and to the brick walls we encountered while searching for clues, I realize that it isn’t important for me to have all the answers, and that part of the beauty of this kind of research is in the very mysteries that can never be solved. For after all, each time a new person is added to a tree, more blank spaces inevitably open. Every “answer” prompts new questions, and keeps the journey, rather than the destination, in focus.

rms metagama

An eccentric old woman and her ferocious black cat

various docsI’m looking forward to giving a workshop in London, Ontario, later this week called Digging Up Stories, and it’s got me thinking over the wide variety of resources we used during our research for The Cowkeeper’s Wish. One of the most illuminating was the British Newspaper Archive, which contains digitized papers from the British Library collection dating back to the 1700s. We found our cowkeeper lurking in those pages, dangerously diluting his milk, and we found his daughter Lazy Mary too, “seized with giddiness” just before she died at the workhouse infirmary. Family detail is gold when writing this sort of story — but newspapers of the day offer plenty of insight even when family names don’t appear.

As I’ve written before, much of our story takes place in Red Cross Street, now Redcross Way, in Southwark in the mid to late 1800s. When we snooped through the newspaper archive for details of what was happening in the street at a certain time in our story, we were never disappointed. The articles helped us peer into the world in which we were writing about, and learn more about neighbours and local shops and industries; in reading about the crimes and scandals and celebrations that went on, we could better imagine what it might have been like to live in that place at that time.

st-saviour-southwark-crop-depicted-in-charles-booth-poverty-map-sheet-9-public-domaine
Charles Booth’s map, colour-coded to show poverty levels. Red Cross Street runs diagonally through the centre, with St. George the Martyr Workhouse in the lower left corner. See https://booth.lse.ac.uk/ for more about the Booth’s work documenting poverty in London.

Poverty, of course, was a constant theme. One longtime neighbour was a woman named Rosetta Hogg, who lived a few doors away from our cowkeeper and his wife, Benjamin and Margaret Jones. I have no idea if Benjamin and Margaret knew Rosetta — but I’m pretty sure they’d have known of her. By 1881, she had lived in the same room within 59 Red Cross Street for about 20 years, and in the neighbourhood for much longer. The census says that she was 72 years old, worked as a charwoman, and had been born in Southwark. It also says she lived alone in the room, but that wasn’t quite true, according to neighbours who lived in other rooms in the building; I pity the poor census taker who knocked on her door that April day to inquire about her particulars. She had “a ferocious black cat … which she threatened to set at anyone who dared to enter, and which kept the people in the house in a state of fear.”

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

The cat seemed to be the woman’s only companion. She had never married, and was apparently “so eccentric in her habits that for upwards of 10 years no one had been allowed to enter her room.” She was frightfully thin, and also old and alone. One day in December a neighbour brought her some sago pudding, which Rosetta accepted; but when the neighbour didn’t see or hear from Rosetta the next day, she became concerned, and called the police. Rosetta was found dead, huddled near the fireplace. Her body was emaciated, and her room was so filthy that carbolic acid was sprinkled around to disinfect the place before anything was touched. The windows were broken and stuffed with rags; the walls and floor were stained with grime; there was no furniture other than a “greasy mattress.” The cat sat quietly close by, not so ferocious after all.

At the coroner’s inquest it was revealed that for some time Rosetta Hogg had depended on outdoor relief from the parish, which meant that officials would have come round on a regular basis to check on her home situation. The coroner wanted to know “what the sanitary authorities had been about to allow a woman to live in this dirty state.” But the relieving officer testified that when he visited, she refused to let him enter, and that because of this he told her she was no longer eligible for assistance. She could enter the workhouse instead, he said, but she refused to go.

I wonder if it was the cat who kept her at home — where would it go if she left?

The “Applications for Relief” ledgers from this period make for sad reading. There’s nothing, unfortunately, for the year pertaining to Rosetta Hogg’s story, but an 1888 book from Southwark notes applicants’ particulars, including name, address, and occupation; forms of relief received elsewhere; what was given, its value, and how long it would be offered for; plus relatives’ details, since relatives were “liable by law to relieve the applicant” if capable of doing so. One woman, applying for assistance for herself and her six children, explained that “husband in prison” for assaulting her. But mostly this column was left blank, as if there wasn’t much point in asking the question. Some 28 columns run across each page, including one headed “Date of Last Visit at Residence of the Pauper.” It was no doubt a humiliating experience obtaining “relief” — but a step up, still, from entering the workhouse.

Testimony at the inquest showed Rosetta had promised to go to the workhouse later in the week, but died before she made it there. It’s hard to imagine that the workhouse would have been worse than her bleak, dirty room, for at least she would have been fed and had a less “greasy” mattress to sleep on. But at home she had independence and solitude, and the cat to care for — no small thing, the importance of caring for another living creature when you yourself are alone and struggling. Having a pet can make you feel useful and loved.

It’s impossible to know if this is how Rosetta Hogg felt, or what happened to the cat after she died. In our own family archive, only two pictures exist of her neighbours, Benjamin and Margaret Jones, and in one of them, through the creases and the washed out tones, you can just make out a cat on Benjamin’s lap. It isn’t Rosetta’s black cat — tabby stripes are apparent on the tail — but I like the link anyway, and the tiny bit of detail it gives us about who these people were. Benjamin looks at Margaret, and she and the cat both look out at the camera and whoever holds it. The photo was probably taken in the 1880s, in their tiny garden on Red Cross Street. Margaret died a few years after Rosetta, and Benjamin a few years after her, taking their stories with them.

benjamin and margaret jones maybe ♦

Sources:

  • “Death of an Eccentric Character.” South London Press, 17 December, 1881.
  • “Miserable Death of an Old Woman.” Gloucester Citizen, 12 December, 1881.
  • “Shocking Discovery.” Dublin Evening Telegraph, 19 December, 1881.
  • 1881 census, Red Cross Street, Southwark. Ancestry.ca.
  • 1888 Application and Report Book, Settlement Papers, Southwark. London England Poor Law and Board of Guardian Records, Ancestry.ca.

 

Loss of the Mary Rose and Strongbow

Chapter 12 - Some of the crew members of HMS Mary Rose, circa 1916
Some of the crew of the Mary Rose, 1916. Joe is here too, in the lower right portion of the photo, behind the man with the cigarette in his mouth.

One hundred and one years ago today, Joe Deverill’s ship went down in the North Sea. He was on board HMS Mary Rose, with 100 or so other men, when they were attacked by two German light cruisers in the early hours of the morning. Mary Rose and her sister ship Strongbow were destroyers charged with accompanying a convoy of merchant ships back and forth between Scotland and Norway — the job was usually boring, according to one of the sailors who survived, and who called the trips “mail runs.” But October 17, 1917, was the opposite of boring. The convoy was sunk, and some 250 men lost their lives.

Chapter 9 - Joe Deverill circa 1915
Joe Deverill, early in WW1

Joe’s story was only a tiny footnote in our larger story when my sister Tracy and I began the research for The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Little did we know that we would end up in the National Archives in London, meeting with other descendants of Mary Rose men, and scouring court documents, reading the actual testimony of the men who survived this terrifying ordeal. On the Mary Rose, those men were few in number. Only 10 made it safely to Norway, having witnessed the horrible deaths of their shipmates.

It was fascinating work finding out about these men — those who perished and those who survived — and gathering them into a “community” on the Imperial War Museum’s wonderful site, Lives of the First World War. That’s where our research began, and it grew massively from there. Service records, newspaper accounts, family lore, photographs, letters, and testimonies from the survivors all combined to give us stunning details, some tiny, some rich, that helped us revive the men’s stories: one sailor had a “True Love for Maggie” tattoo, and another had webbed toes; a survivor confessed in a letter to another man’s widow that he would “go sick” if he were sent to sea again after “that horrible massacre”; another widow had a baby not long after her husband was killed, and named the child Mary Rose; a 17-year-old midshipman had only just been temporarily transferred to the Mary Rose, and was meant to go back to his own ship in a week’s time; yet another man — a survivor whose identity we haven’t uncovered — brought a piece of Mary Rose wreckage to a deceased man’s family when he came to offer his condolences and tell them what had happened. How difficult and necessary such visits must have been, not just after this event, but after so many of the tragedies of war.

It could have been Joe who made the offering, for a family story exists that he did visit a friend’s mother to offer what news he could about her dead son. He himself had survived — but the joy of being alive was surely muted by loss. Just 19 when the attack occurred, Joe was carrying a lucky penny that exists to this day, and features on the cover of The Cowkeeper’s Wish.

 

One hundred and one years later, we can’t know all that happened that day, and what it did to the men and their loved ones. But the book contains as full an account as we could manage of this small episode of WW1. Here is the opening of the chapter “Down-Hearted and Shivery,” which recounts the attack and its aftermath:

As the news of Mary Anne’s death travelled toward him that October in 1917, Joe unwittingly moved farther away from it. On the morning of the 15th, Mary Rose and her sister destroyer Strongbow left Lerwick, accompanying a convoy of merchant ships to Norway with the help of two British fishing trawlers fitted out for escort purposes. The trips were sometimes boring, as Joe’s crewmate John Bailey had noted, but also potentially dangerous. The convoy system hadn’t been perfected yet, and many of the merchant ships, or “packets” as they were known, had little experience travelling in such a regimented way. Sometimes the fast ships pushed too far ahead, and the slower ships lagged behind, making the destroyers’ job to guard the whole group not just challenging but maddening because of all that could go wrong while the gaps in the convoy widened. Sometimes, too, the destroyers were purposely sent in different directions. By the morning of the 16th, after an uneventful sail, Mary Rose and Strongbow were approaching Norway with their group. As per their instructions on leaving Scotland the day before, they parted ways when they encountered a second westbound convoy. Mary Rose took up this new convoy of twelve ships, and with the trawler P. Fannon started back toward Lerwick. Strongbow, with the trawler Elise, carried on with her original charges. Once she’d seen them to shore at Bergen, Norway, she would turn back and rejoin the westbound group.

Evening had come by the time Strongbow and Elise drew close to the others again. Several times through the night, Strongbow’s Lieutenant-Commander Edward Brooke attempted to reach Charles Fox on Mary Rose but was unable to make contact. Fox, for his part, did not know that Strongbow had returned, but he zigzagged ahead anyway, staying close to a couple of the faster ships in the convoy and drawing farther away from the bulk of the packets lagging behind. With Lerwick in reach, the convoy grew uneven. By dawn the two destroyers were close to ten miles apart with most of the merchant ships between them. The sky was lightening but cloudy, and the sea was rough. Just before six, Strongbow’s officer of the watch sighted two ships coming closer. He assumed, from their dark grey colour, that they were British light cruisers. But when Strongbow flashed its recognition signals, the ships answered by opening fire.

 

With thanks to Sue Church for her diligence and enthusiasm researching the Mary Rose, and for bringing so many of the crew’s descendants together.