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