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

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

Kate’s Story

When you sit down to write a book like The Cowkeeper’s Wish that spans generations and decades, it’s inevitable that some details and characters will have to go by the wayside. As difficult as that culling is for those of us who love a big story, and as tantalizing the detail or interesting the character being omitted, in the end the edit usually makes the narrative tighter and tidier and more enjoyable for the reader. One of the characters left out of our story was our great grandfather’s sister, Kate Sarah Deverill. It’s never nice to exclude a sister, so this post is meant to remedy that.Forget-Me-Not Flowers

The third child of William Henry Deverill and Mary Margaret Taylor, Kate was born in Uxbridge on February 3rd, 1872. Her sister Ada was three years older, and her brother Harry, our great grandfather, two. All three children had been baptized in the so-called non-conformist (meaning not Church of England) Providence Chapel, the same church where their parents had wed in 1867. How William Henry and Mary Margaret came to meet is an interesting tale, full of speculation, but for now suffice to say that William was in the grocer’s trade, and Mary, daughter of the resourceful Mary Anna Bell-Taylor, had inherited her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit and ran a toy shop.

William grew up in Uxbridge, a small community 25 kilometres from the centre of London, located on the main road between that city and Oxford. Throughout the 18th century, travel along the route was steady with some 40 stage coaches a day stopping to change horses and rest passengers, and dozens of inns, alehouses and breweries did a brisk trade. Because of the traffic, the area was rife with highwaymen, and several were said to have lived openly in Uxbridge, lending the village a reputation for dishonesty. Apart from the coaching trade, an agricultural industry existed in Uxbridge, centred on corn and flour, market gardens and greenhouses. In the 1830s, brick-earth, a kind of loam that only needs baking to form usable building bricks, was uncovered nearby, and became a major source of local employment. When the main railway line from London was laid through another community and Uxbridge received only a branch line, its industries quickly declined, and throughout much of the 19th century, when our William Deverill lived there, first as a lad, then as a young husband and father, Uxbridge remained a sleepy market town.

Kate lived there with her parents and siblings until she was six or seven years old, old enough to be aware of the most likely reason for the family’s move, her father’s bankruptcy. A notice in the London Gazette recorded William’s misfortune, directing that “at three o’clock in the afternoon precisely” on January 20, 1876, he appear at the offices of Messers. Woodbridge and Sons, Solicitors, for a meeting with his creditors. His days as a grocer weren’t over, but he’d no longer be a business owner, and by 1878 he’d moved his young family to Greenwich, settling near a snarl of railway lines and close to his wife’s relatives.

There are no known photographs of Kate, either as a child or an adult, so we don’t know if she shared her brother Harry’s dark eyes or sister Ada’s round smile.

Jack and Ada maybe
A later photograph of Kate’s younger brother Jack and older sister Ada. Did she look like either of them?

Presumably she learned sewing skills from her dressmaker mother, since on the 1891 census she and her sister Ada, then 19 and 22, still lived at home sewing shirts for a living. At some point between 1891 and 1897 Kate moved out on her own, and from this point on, her story, like that of so many women, meshes with that of the men in her life, and Kate fades into the background. We do know that she took a flat on the north side of the Thames in the Covent Garden area near Buckingham Palace. Despite its proximity to the royal palace, the inhabitants, according to Charles Booth’s London poverty maps and notebooks, were “mixed. Some poor living … but not rough.” Part of a street improvement plan implemented in 1880, Kate’s address, 7D Block, Bedfordbury, was most likely the Peabody Buildings, tenement structures with “luxury” features like outdoor recreation space and laundry facilities, although the flats did not have running water. Presumably, these were happy days for Kate, given the presence at 10B Block of a young man with the unusual name of Frederick Gaughan Burnett. If we were to try to characterize Fred based on the few details we know about him, it would be tempting to imagine him as a carefree charmer with an easy laugh, happily fabricating the facts of his past. Certainly he is an enigma for us, more than a century on, trying to make sense of the few perplexing clues left behind. On one record, his father was called Frederick, an Indian Commissioner; on another, William, a knight; on a third, Sir William Gaugan Burnett, I.C.S. (either Indian or Imperial Civil Service). Yet Fred himself worked as a railway porter, and later a commercial salesman, neither job plausible for the only son of a man with a knighthood. These oddities didn’t matter to Kate, or perhaps she knew the true story we’ve been unable to find. Whatever the case, she married Fred in July, 1897, a few weeks after the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The register shared a few more surprises: the wedding occurred at St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square, a grand and historic Church of England place of worship, though Kate had been baptized as a Methodist, and Fred’s “Rank or Profession” was reported as Soldier, R.H.A., or Royal Horse Artillery.

It’s possible that all this is fact. Perhaps the initial recording of Fred’s father as another Frederick instead of William was a clerk’s error; perhaps Fred’s father had indeed been knighted for his service to the crown as a member of the civil service in India, and any record of him has simply not survived. Perhaps Fred was the illegitimate son of this knighted man, which would explain the difference in their stations – the father a person of some means and accomplishment, the son carting other people’s luggage for a living, and taking in boarders to help pay the rent. It’s even conceivable that Fred was indeed a soldier in the Royal Horse Artillery, and that as a very young man he’d worn the crisp blue uniform with its rows and rows of gold braid adorning the chest and cuffs, although any accounts to prove this remain elusive, as do any records at all of Fred before he married Kate.

waterloo station 1902
Waterloo Station in 1902, where Fred may have worked as a railway porter.

So Fred is one of those frustrating and fascinating genealogical brick walls, although once his story joins Kate’s, it is not so obscure, but no less interesting. The couple settled at first in the Waldeck Buildings on Windmill Street in Lambeth, a “superior, improved dwelling” where the flats boasted their own sink with running water and “plenty of shelves and good cupboards.” The buildings were situated close by Waterloo Station, a likely place of employment for Fred given his work as a railway porter. Waterloo had become quite ramshackle, with platforms added willy nilly since its opening in 1848, and by the time Fred worked there it was considered the most perplexing station in the city, and was the butt of jokes and music hall gags.

coffin ticket
First, second and third class coffin tickets, ensuring that no body, whether dead or alive, need rub with another of the wrong sort.

In addition to being a snaggle of disorganization, Waterloo also had a spur line to the dedicated station of the London Necropolis Company, which ran funeral trains daily to Brookwood Cemetery. These trains carried not only the coffins of the dead, but the mourning parties as well. Different classes were available on the trains for both the living and the dead, so an upper class corpse did not have to travel with a poor man’s corpse, or put up with his relatives.

The Waldeck Buildings where Kate and Fred lived was chock full of police constables, the lowest rank on the force, and who were paid a relatively low wage. Why so many police in one place? One explanation may be the floating police station constructed in 1900 at the Waterloo Pier, home to the Thames River Division of the Metropolitan Police Force. The River Police, as they were known, had a long history of patrolling the Thames, and in fact had existed well before London’s Metropolitan force was formed, and with which they’d amalgamated. Once, smugglers and cargo thieves had been the division’s main focus. Now, at the end of the 19th century, their floating station was as well known for its pots of geraniums outside as it was for missions of recovery. The Waterloo Bridge where the division floated was the most popular spot on the Thames for suicides, and during patrol while the men watched for cargo thieves they scanned the water for bodies too.

thames river police
Thames River Police patrolled the river watching for cargo thieves and suicides.

Living amongst so many police officers meant Kate and Fred surely knew several personally, and it may be why, in 1911, having moved back north of the Thames to St. Pancras in the area of Gray’s Inn, they took in Arthur Steggals as a boarder. Arthur was a member of Central Investigations Division of the London Metropolitan Police, described as having brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. He’d joined the force in 1900, and had progressed through the ranks, becoming a detective with some experience, and a sergeant. Searches of newspapers and police court records return Arthur’s name repeatedly, and give us a flavour of the kind of work an Edwardian-era policeman did, and some insight into Arthur’s character. An article from 1908 recounts the arrest of a man who stole several pairs of boots, including Arthur’s, from the police station. Encountering the man on the street, Arthur recognized his own boots, and took the fellow into custody. At his court hearing it was reported that the man was a workhouse inmate but that he sometimes worked at the police station doing odd jobs. In the past Arthur had helped him out by giving him a jacket and waistcoat. The magistrate was lenient by Edwardian standards, and told the accused he would not send him to prison this time, but placed him under probation for a month. Another newspaper item tells a rougher story, of Arthur and a second officer in a “desperate fight” with two men caught burgling a warehouse. One of the perpetrators escaped, and the other was arrested, but not before injuring Arthur and his fellow officer so badly that they were unable to appear in court to testify.

What Kate and Fred thought of these kinds of stories, if Arthur shared them, is unknown. Nor is it apparent the circumstances that led to the break-up of Fred and Kate’s marriage, but some time after the 1911 census, when the three were recorded as living together – man, wife and boarder – Fred left the flat in St. Pancras, and in 1914, without a divorce from Kate, married Kathleen (Queenie) Bell from Leicester, at St. Stephen’s, Putney, south of the Thames. Their daughter was born in 1918.

At what point in this tale did Kate and Arthur progress from landlady and boarder to something more? Arthur’s 1915 pension record when he retired from the force at age 36 shows that he was single, and living at an address in West Kilburn. Of Kate there is no trace until, disregarding the law and chancing a charge of bigamy but perhaps encouraged by word of Fred and Queenie’s bigamist union, she and Arthur married in 1920 at Kingston, Surrey. Unlike Fred, Kate remained childless, but she and Arthur lived close by Kate’s sisters and their families, sharing happy, sad and ordinary days. Arthur died first, likely of heart or kidney problems, just before Christmas, 1940 at the age of 64, and Kate four years after, when she was 72. But for the curiosity of searchers like us, coming to the story decades later, Kate’s existence might have passed into obscurity, gone and forgotten. And while there is so much we do not and cannot know about this other Deverill sister, at least part of her story is now resurrected.thinking of you postcard.jpg

Sources

Old Bailey online

Thames Police Museum

British Newspapers online archive

London Gazette online

Ancestry

British History online

 

Meg Dods’ Stuffing and the Legacy of a Temperance Man

cassell's household guideIn 1884, Cassell’s Household Guide to Every Department of Practical Life: Being a Complete Encyclopaedia of Domestic and Social Economy — whew! — purported to share everything the average housewife should know to run an efficient household. At 396 pages, it contained articles about how to make paper chains for Christmas decoration, how to pickle lemons and how to deal with the dreaded influenza, the cause of which, Cassell’s noted, “has been attributed to a deficiency of ozone in the atmosphere, or to an alteration in the electrical conditions of the earth.” There was a whole section dedicated to that timeless and contentious topic “The Rearing and Management of Children,” and another called “Odds and Ends,” which offered advice on cleaning “the fur” from the insides of bottles, and also included “Facts Worth Knowing about Glue.”  According to Cassell’s, glue should be purchased when the weather is hot, for glues of inferior quality would then reveal themselves by their soft texture. “Glue that is not perfectly hard,” the guide stated, “… is of inferior quality, and should be rejected, for it does not hold so well, and is liable to become putrid.”

Cassell’s was a treasure trove of information for the housewife of the Victorian period and beyond. Originally published in 1869 in four volumes, it was reprinted in 1884 and again in 1911, by which time it had grown to six impressive volumes, included illustrations and 22 coloured plates, and had pared its name down to Cassell’s Household Guide: A Complete Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy.

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Advice could be had from Cassell’s Guide on ailments like “Housemaid’s Knee.”

Of course the advice dispensed changed with the times. The 1869 edition contained five mentions of crinolines (that voluminous underskirt of wires and starched netting), warning about “severe burns, such as arise from the clothes taking fire” — so-called “crinoline accidents” — and “Housemaid’s Knee,” a condition aggravated by kneeling on the crinoline’s wires. By the time of the release of the 1884 version of the guide, crinolines had dropped out of style, and Cassell’s included just one reference to the fashion craze.

But who was the knowledgeable Cassell, expounding with equal authority on ladies’ garments, the treatment of gall stones, and how to make Meg Dods’ stuffing (“the liver parboiled and chopped, if in a sound state”)?

John Cassell was born in 1817 at the The Ring O’ Bells pub, Manchester, where his father was the landlord. What opportunity he had for schooling came to an end when his father was seriously injured in a fall and could no longer work, and a few years later, died. In his teenage years John worked at first in a textile factory, and then later, showing some skill and promise, was indentured as a carpenter’s apprentice. But John was motivated beyond merely learning a trade. The Fireside Annual, published in 1882, tells us that even as a young man, John was “determined to educate himself, to break down the trammels of class ignorance, first of all in his own case, and, that once accomplished, to assist with all the energy he possessed, his brother workmen to do the same.” After putting in a hard day’s work, evening studies were difficult, but eventually he acquired “an extensive acquaintance with English literature, great general information, and a fair mastery of the French language.” But what stood him in greatest stead was what he learned from his fellow workers in the carpenter’s shop, “for here he gained an insight into … the struggles, privations, and miseries, as well as the hopes and ambitions of the working classes; and this knowledge was carefully stored up until he should, at a future time, see some way of firing their minds and ameliorating their condition.”

Eager for new ideas and yearning for a worthy cause, he chanced to hear Joseph Livesey, leader of a temperance group that advocated abstinence from the evils of drink, and he was drawn to the movement. Livesey was equally impressed by Cassell, recalling their first encounter in a Manchester lecture room. “I remember quite well … his standing on the right, just below or on the steps of the platform, in his working attire, with a fustian jacket and an apron on — a young man of eighteen, in the honestest and best of uniforms — his industrial regimentals.”

Nov 16 1871 09 09 ale

John put all his energies toward the cause of temperance, but he was practical too, and understood that except for the privileged few, lecturing didn’t put food on the table or pay the rent. Looking both to find work as a carpenter and to further spread the word of the temperance mission, John set his sights on London, and like his contemporaries, our own Benjamin and Margaret Jones, walked the length of the country to arrive in the city in October, 1836. Within a few days he’d found his way to the New Jerusalem Schoolroom in Westminster Bridge Road and delivered his first public speech on temperance, appearing to an observer as “a gaunt stripling, poorly clad, and travel-stained; plain, straightforward in speech, but broad in provincialism.” He came to be noticed by John Meredith, the founder of the London Temperance Mission, a man considered “the Napoleon of the temperance warfare,” and whose goal it was to “cover the whole country with temperance influence.” Meredith, though, did not have the gift of oration, and had difficulty delivering his message attractively, but in Cassell he had found an eloquent speaker — young, enthusiastic and energetic. Cassell became a paid temperance agent, trudging from town to town, shaking a rattle to draw attention and then hopping onto a crate to call out against the “vices that sat like skeletons beside half the hearths in England.” His zeal drew many converts as well as sneers and derision, but in Lincolnshire it attracted a woman named Mary Abbott, and their marriage signalled the end of Cassell’s days as a circuit lecturer. Cassell remained a strong advocate for the temperance movement, though, and with money Mary had inherited from her father, the couple settled in northwest London, and John began a tea and coffee business, partly because he recognized an untapped market, and partly for philanthropic reasons. As a  penniless youth and later as a visitor to poor homes and villages, Cassell knew that tea and coffee — obvious temperance drinks — were expensive and not readily available, and that the much cheaper beer and gin filled the poor man’s mug. Selling cheap tea and coffee to the masses would not only promote sobriety but would be a good business.

He was right, and so successful that “Cassell’s shilling coffee” became a household staple, and John found himself with an excess of money and leisure time. He bought a used printing press and began to dabble in publishing, printing temperance tracts and pamphlets, and experimenting with illustrated covers, which he noticed sold better than those without. His first publication was a little magazine called the Teetotal Times, and he followed that with an attempt at a weekly paper called The Standard of Freedom which advocated for freedom in religion, and reflected Cassell’s “courageous and independent mind.” But he was most successful printing cheap educational books, and a newspaper that he called The Working Man’s Friend, which “did not patronize, give itself airs; nor did it play down to the lowest intelligence. It was full of sympathy and understanding of the working man’s life.”John_Cassell_-_02

Cassell’s expanded, moving premises and growing its list of publications geared towards and affordable for the working man. In 1852 the company published a 26-volume work entitled Cassell’s Library, with a variety of authors contributing pieces like the “Account of the Steam Engine,” and a “Natural History of Man.” It sold cheaply, meeting its intended audience, and was followed immediately by the Popular Educator, the “crown and culmination of John Cassell’s experience and judgment of the needs of those to whom general education had been denied.” Weekly issues included lessons in botany, geography, geometry and French, as well as ancient history, architecture and arithmetic. It was “a school, an academy, and a university all in one… [arousing] real wonder in the minds of the reviewers who wrote about it.” Its editor, Professor Robert Wallace of Glasgow University, wrote of the weekly, “It cannot be but pleasing for us to reflect that each successive week nearly 100,000 families are undergoing a course of useful instruction by means of this periodical.” Popular Educator had quickly become a national institution, and classes formed to expand on the lessons introduced in the publication.

But what, then, of Cassell’s Household Guide? By the time it was published in 1869, replete with the illustrations and diagrams that John Cassell had understood were so important to the working-class appeal of his publications, the man himself was dead. His early demise in 1865 at the age of 48 was attributed by some to “his closely continued application to … business, and the anxiety it entailed,” but in fact he’d succumbed to “an internal tumour,” the effects of which had been noted for many months in his loss of strength and general ill health. His name was “a veritable household word” by then, and Cassell’s itself soldiered on in his absence, continuing in the tradition he had begun, and building “an Empire of literature in the hearts and homes of the working man.”

Sources

Cassell’s Household Guide, Cassell, Petter and Galpin, London, 1869.

The Fireside Annual, Home Words Publishing Office, 1882.

The Story of the House of Cassell, Cassell & Co. Ltd., London, 1922.

The History of the Temperance Movement in Great Britain and Ireland, by Samuel Couling. William Tweedie Co., London, 1862.

“Death of Mr. John Cassell,” Carlisle Journal, 4 April, 1865.