Out from the shadows: Alice Ayres and the Union Street Fire

Tracy and I visited Gananoque this past weekend, and participated in the 1000 Islands Writers Festival. If you ever have a chance to go to this beautiful part of Ontario, do! And even better if you can manage to make next year’s festival. The organizers go above and beyond to ensure it’s a wonderful event for readers and listeners alike, rich with music and literary delights. On Friday evening, each of the authors did a short reading. We were asked to choose passages that had to do with the festival’s theme of Life in the Shadows — focusing on the unknown, the unrecognized, the underappreciated. Since much of The Cowkeeper’s Wish is set in the slums of Victorian London, it wasn’t hard to follow the theme. I chose a passage about a woman named Alice Ayres, who stepped out of the shadows under the most tragic circumstances. Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Alice Ayres
Alice Ayres, Illustrated London News, May 1885

In 1885, one April Friday at two in the morning, a fire broke out at an oil and colourman’s shop on Union Street. Such shops specialized in mixing paints, and when the gunpowder and casks of oil kept onsite quickly ignited, the fire spread rapidly. The shopman and his family, sleeping in the rooms above, were soon woken and trapped by the flames. Neighbours gathered in the street, blankets wrapped around their nightclothes. If Mary and her daughters were there, they’d have seen the horse-drawn fire engine arrive in short order, carrying firefighters with their Spartan helmets, axes holstered at their waists. But it was already too late to lean the ladders against the bricks – flames lashed out of the windows, and heat from the burning oil emanated from the building.

When a woman appeared in a third-storey window, neighbours called to her to jump, but she disappeared from view. The smoke curled in the crisp spring air, and the crowd grew thicker, faces lighted by the glow of the fire. And then the woman reappeared. She pushed a feather mattress through the window to the ground, and the crowd called again to her to jump, but instead she lifted a small, startled girl, about five years old, up to the window ledge and dropped her to the mattress below. She slipped away and returned to the window with another girl, this one smaller than the last, crying and clinging to her, refusing to be dropped. But the woman threw the child out and someone held up their arms and caught her. Once more she returned, with the smallest girl yet, and dropped her to the mattress.

The voices in the crowd were ragged now, screaming to the woman to save herself. They could see that she was losing strength and having trouble breathing. She tried to push herself from the window, but fell from the frame, and on the way down she struck her head on the shop sign below. She landed head-down, cracking her spine, and though she was rushed to hospital and did regain consciousness, she died soon after.

The woman’s name was Alice Ayres. She was sister-in-law to the oil and colourman who owned the shop, and nursemaid to the little girls she had released through the window one by one. Once the blaze was put out, the remains of Alice’s sister, the girls’ mother, were found inside, along with a son and the oil and colourman himself, holding a locked box of cash, terrified of losing everything he owned. The obvious horror of the family’s last moments affected the neighbourhood deeply, and captured the imagination of the larger population as well, fuelling a rumour that as Alice had lain in hospital, Queen Victoria had sent a lady-in-waiting to inquire about her worsening condition.

Union_Street_Fire,_1885
The 1885 Union Street Fire as depicted by Walter Crane, English Illustrated Magazine, June 1893

The event was a tragedy, but also appealed to the Victorian love of melodrama and sentiment. Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper called Alice Ayres “a humble heroine,” and asserted that “Such a woman, although only a poor domestic, deserves to be placed among the small but noble army of martyrs to duty.” Mourners flocked to the memorial service at St. Saviour’s, so many that there was not even standing room left in the church. Those in the back strained to hear the words of the minister, who preached a sermon about heroism. Nearly a thousand coins were raised, and it was said that the money would go toward a memorial window for Alice Ayres when the church was restored to its original splendour. Overnight, she had gone from anonymity to working-class heroine, and in the years to come, White Cross Street, running parallel to Red Cross Street, would be renamed Ayres in her honour. She’d undergone a near canonization, with gilded poems and stories written about her selfless duty and devotion. To the growing number of social reformers, Alice Ayres was an irresistible example of what every woman of the lower class should strive to be: hard-working, loyal and self-sacrificing.

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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

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.

 

The Fighting Parson

One of the many colourful stripes that made up the fabric of the Borough in Southwark in the late 1890s was the curate at St. Saviour’s Church known as “the fighting parson.” Charles Pierrepont Edwards was a clergyman who confronted problems head on, and made the papers now and again for his scuffles with local hooligans. He relished the chance to show his “muscular Christianity,” and it was no surprise to see him rush from his house on Newcomen Street, and “place his thews and sinews at the service of the temporal powers.”

Mersea Museum IA004390
Charles Pierrepont Edwards, curate at St. Saviour’s, Southwark and then vicar of West Mersea. Photo credit to the Mersea Museum http://www.merseamuseum.org.uk

Lloyd’s Weekly recounted the court appearance of a fellow who’d apparently stolen a bottle of whiskey and a glass from the White Horse pub on Union Street. The prisoner was a big man, and powerfully built, but he stood in the dock with his head bandaged, and the worse for wear. Testimony in court revealed that Pierrepont Edwards had been holding a confirmation class when he heard the shrill of a whistle, and he ran into the street to rescue a potman being accosted by the accused. The parson tackled the would-be whiskey thief and held him down until the police could take over. The magistrate eyed the bandaged prisoner and decided he’d been sufficiently punished by the parson, and let the man go. On another occasion, kids were playing in Newcomen Street when an old woman stepped into the road to avoid them and was trampled by a horse-drawn van. Hearing her screams, Pierrepont Edwards burst from his house, and carried the woman to the hospital. It was too late to save her, but he was no less lauded as a hero.

He’d been born in 1864 in Erith, Kent, the son of a gentleman. His family had fallen on hard times when he was just a boy, and he’d left school to make his way as a clerk at the West India Docks, so perhaps he’d learned his fighting skills from the dockworkers. Eventually, he’d won a scholarship to a theological college, and taken holy orders, but he’d always felt “the most intense sympathy for the poor. ‘They know it,’ he claimed, ‘and they come to me for advice and assistance in all circumstances. I have been called out in the night to murders and fires, to bail out husbands arrested for wife beating, to accidents and disasters of all kinds. So far as I can,’ he vowed, ‘I live their life.'” And though the roughs of the Borough were the ones he tussled with, even they developed a grudging respect for the curate’s “pugilistic ability.”

Yet despite his fame throughout the Borough, or even because of it, Pierrepont Edwards left for a provincial vicarage, taking a substantial salary cut to move to the village of West Mersea, Essex. Before he left Southwark, the police presented him with a silver tea service, saying they were “sincerely sorry that so able a recruit to the forces of law and order [was] leaving the vicinity.” Later, he served as a chaplain in the Great War, was awarded the Military Cross, and worked for a while with the War Graves Commission, but returned to Mersea to live out his days. He was never far from controversy, though, and when he died the notices cited his “interesting career,” recalling that he “invariably wore a top hat, … was exceedingly quick at repartee, … and proved more than a match for many hecklers.”

Pierrepont Edwards in Gallipoli
Pierrepont Edwards, right, in Gallipoli, 1919. Image © IWM (Q14313)

Sources

  •  Mersea Museum, Mersea Island, Essex
  • “The Fighting Parson.” Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 3 April, 1898
  • “London Week by Week.” Leeds Times, 17 September, 1898
  • “The Fighting Parson.” South Wales Echo, 6 September, 1898
  • Imperial War Museum, Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection
  • “The Fighting Parson.” Royal Cornwall Gazette, 7 April, 1898