Some of the ancestors we wrote about in The Cowkeeper’s Wish spent time in the workhouse, and if they had children when they entered, they were sent to pauper schools, as was the case with the Vanson branch of our story. Richard Vanson, born in the 1860s, grew up to marry our great grandmother’s sister Jennie, but long before that, he was the child of parents mired in poverty, who frequently moved from place to place. His father had done time for burglary before Richard was born, and was listed as a hawker on the 1861 and 1871 census. In 1872, he died of tuberculosis, at just 42 years old, leaving Richard’s mother to care for Richard and his six siblings. By 1875, she too fell ill, with the same “lingering malady,” and died in Newington Workhouse. Richard was nine then, and sent to the Central London District School at Hanwell, nicknamed Cuckoo Schools since it was built on Cuckoo Hill, on farmland outside the city. For several decades, the school housed the parish’s orphans and so-called destitute children. Charlie Chaplin and his brother attended when their mother Hannah entered the workhouse. Despite the beautiful country setting — a breath of fresh air for “pauper” children from London — Chaplin later wrote that his time there was “a forlorn existence” and that “Sadness was in the air.”
Richard Vanson’s three younger siblings — a brother and two sisters — went with him to Hanwell, and the three older ones fended for themselves; from that point on, the siblings never lived as a family again. While conducting our research of the place, trying to find out what it must have been like for children living out their childhoods there, as the Vansons did, we scoured the newspaper archive for mentions of Hanwell, and among our finds were notices placed in a “Long Lost Relatives” column in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper.
From 1886: “Alice Hutchinson has not been heard of by her brother since she left him at Hanwell school about 15 years ago.”
From 1889: “James Boneer, who 22 years ago left St Pancras workhouse for Hanwell school, wishes to hear of his relatives.”
From 1893: “Vincent (Frederick) left Hanwell Schools, Middlesex, in July 1879; when last heard of was AB on HMS Victory at Portsmouth. Sister Kate inquires.”
From 1895: “George William Rapley would like to trace his parents, whom he has never seen or heard of. He was put in a school at Hanwell called the Cuckoo School.”
Curious about the history of the column itself, I did a bit more digging, and found that sometimes there were so many entries of people searching for loved ones that they were divided by category: Parents and Children, Brothers Seeking Sisters, Sisters Seeking Sisters, and so on. The columns make for heart-breaking reading, but often contain good news too, such as at Christmas in 1886, when a reader wrote to say “I beg to tender my heartfelt thanks for helping me, through your valuable paper, to find the whereabouts of my mother, whom for about 11 years I had heard nothing whatever of, but from whom I received a letter by last mail.”
By the time the Long Lost Relatives column had a regular place in Lloyd’s Weekly in the mid-1880s, the paper had been around for more than 40 years. It had been founded by Edward Lloyd, who declared from the outset, “We have no private interest to serve; no party to land. We enter the political ocean a free trader. Our flag is independence, and we will nail it to the mast.” Lloyd was one of the fathers of the “penny bloods,” dramatic, serialized stories that were hugely popular with the working class. With Lloyd’s Weekly, he became a sort of “pioneer of the cheap press,” bringing the masses a newspaper they could afford. One writer claimed that, prior to Lloyd’s, “If a person of humble means wanted to know what was going on in the world, he would have to go to a public house and borrow the Morning Advertiser.”
The paper’s content was often unexpected, and included material not typically found in other publications. Inspiration for the lost relatives column apparently grew out of an 1877 letter submitted to the newspaper, for which Lloyd’s ran the following notice:
F. W. Wheeler, photographer, of Richford, Vermont, USA, sends us an account of an unknown Englishman drowned in America. The accident occurred in the Missisquoi River at Richford, Vermont, on June 28, 1874. The deceased, a young man, was supposed to be Henry Preston, of Holborn, London. In his pockets were found a letter from his mother, and two worn photographs, probably of his mother and little sister. Our correspondent encloses copies of the photographs, also a copy of the letter.
The next Sunday, under the heading “A Message from the Grave,” Lloyd’s told its readers that “Monday morning brought the sorrowing mother of the deceased to our office.” She had the same photographs with her, and said that the last letter she’d had from her son had been dated just days before the accident. Since then, she’d known nothing of his whereabouts.
More such inquiries followed over the years — parents anxious to hear from sons and daughters “scattered abroad”; siblings separated by misfortune; wives hunting out “husbands who appear to have purposely disappeared.” (These last the paper claimed were impossible cases, and didn’t take them on.) Eventually the queries became so frequent that the paper decided to run a regular column, and in May 1886 headed the piece with the notice:
Letters continue to pour in upon us from correspondents asking the aid of Lloyd’s to discover relatives of whom all trace has been lost for many years. We shall deal with these mainly in the order they are received, giving, however, the preference to mothers seeking their children, and printing as many as circumstances will permit each week.
The paper’s popularity grew, and the column ran until at least 1900, as far as I can tell. People wrote in from all over the world, and also from the humblest spots in London, where they’d lost track of each other. Lloyd’s published shortened versions of the letters and kept the longer on file, hoping for responses, and including these in the column when they came. A quick glimpse shows the multitude of ways families had been fragmented, and the pain it caused years afterwards. But sometimes people were reunited, even decades later, simply by way of a small notice in the newspaper, printed free of charge. Others, of course, never found each other. It’s astonishing to read these desperate notices now, what with social media, and the ease of spreading information not just far and wide but instantly.
Richard Vanson left Hanwell at 15, to be apprenticed as a bootmaker. He eventually settled back in his childhood neighbourhood, where he met and married Jennie and made his way into our family tree. Many of his siblings pop up at nearby addresses, so they seem to have made an attempt to return “home” and be close to each other, despite the system that separated them at such a young age. But their trials were far from over. Richard died young, just as his parents had, and of the same illness. And when his brother entered the workhouse as a grown man, likely down on his luck, his children were sent on to Hanwell, just as he and his siblings had been.
And so the cycle of poverty continued.
Edward Lloyd: Victorian newspaper proprietor, publisher and entrepreneur
“Long Lost Relatives.” Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, British Newspaper Archive.
“Edward Lloyd and the Penny Bloods.” Untold Lives Blog, British Library, February 2015.
“Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper: Romance of a Daring Journalistic Venture.” The London Magazine.
My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplin. London: The Bodley Head, 1964.
Children at Crumpsall Workhouse, Manchester Archives.