I first came upon John Errington, Inspector of Nuisances, while researching our cowkeeper ancestor, periodically charged with diluting milk and keeping his cows in a filthy state. It was Errington’s job to sniff out unsanitary conditions in one of the poorest parts of Victorian London, so he was a busy man. When he discovered rancid cherries and rotten mackerel being sold in the streets, he delivered the foul evidence to the Medical Officer of Health. Together these men were part of a team looking out for the community’s welfare in a time when the spread of disease wasn’t fully understood, and dirt and grime were abundant. More than once, the “intolerable effluvium” Errington investigated emanated from bodies left unburied. Poverty was frequently at the core of his work.
In June 1876, he deemed a block of houses in Glasshouse Yard, Gravel Lane, unfit for human habitation. Filth alone was enough to condemn them for “danger of fever,” but they looked structurally unsafe, too, so Errington called upon surveyor Thomas Greenstreet, who likewise condemned the houses. Bits of roof had come away; shutters, flooring and banisters had been torn out for firewood. The tenants were mostly poor Irish families, and though the property owner, the South Eastern Railway Company, had evicted them, they stayed, having nowhere else to go. The company had purchased dilapidated housing in order to knock it down and expand a railway line, but not all of the property had been required, and these were the places left over, some of them missing doors and windows.
In July, one of the houses fell. Fortunately, no one was inside, but the Medical Officer of Health, Robert Bianchi, warned that the other houses were now even more precarious, and might “tumble down at any hour.” He urged “immediate ejectment of the tenants on humanitarian grounds.” Greenstreet recommended that, until the buildings were demolished, a hoarding be erected around the perimeter.
By August, though, the houses remained, and with no barrier. A widow named Julia Hunter was at home in another of the illegally inhabited dwellings when she heard a huge crack and saw the walls of the house next to the fallen one give way. The walls fell outwards in pieces, and the roof crashed down. It was a startling sight, but not shocking, for Julia had expected it, and had warned her children not to play near those houses. At least, once again, no one had been inside. Or so it was thought.
Julia’s son told a friend about the house that fell down, and he came to see the destruction. He was picking through the rubble when he spotted a tiny pair of shoes sticking up, toes to the sky. The deceased was John David Evans, two-year-old son of a dairyman living nearby. The boy was taken to the infirmary, but “life had ceased to exist for several hours.” The doctor noted John’s body was covered with bruises, his jaw had been forced in, and his right eye protruded. “Death ensued from suffocation.”
One article claims that, after the tragic collapse, “a number of gentlemen interested in the case proceeded to the Glasshouse-yard … for the purpose of viewing the scene of the disaster. A number of families were found huddled together, and the scanty furniture and bedding were packed up and deposited for hasty removal in the yard.”
By the time of the inquest a week later, four more of the rickety houses had already been pulled down. But there were plenty of similar dwellings in the vicinity, so the tavern where the inquest was held was “crowded to excess … the case having created great interest in the neighbourhood.” Errington testified as to the homes’ squalor, and the danger of disease, and Greenstreet noted that “a heavy gust of wind would have blown them down.” The incredulous coroner asked Julia Hunter, “Why did you remain?” and she answered, “It was impossible for us to get any other place to dwell in. One of our neighbours, a decent woman, has been trying her hardest to get a place, but can’t do it, because the police have given us all such a bad name, because we are Irish.”
The coroner deemed the death accidental in the end, and said that even if there had been criminal negligence, no verdict of manslaughter could be made against corporate bodies like the Board of Works and the railway company. But he added a rider: “the Metropolitan Board of Works should have taken immediate steps towards securing the house that fell upon receipt of the notice … from the surveyor, Mr. Greenstreet.”
But a year later, some of the buildings remained standing, unsecured. And elsewhere in the neighbourhood, the same problems prevailed. Just a few months after John Evans’ death, the tireless Inspector Errington implored the Magistrate to remember the little boy and the tumbling houses in Glasshouse Yard: another 16, also owned by the railway, were teetering in Ewer Street, fully inhabited, emptied of woodwork, and open, in places, to the sky.
“Law and Police – Southwark.” South London Chronicle, 17 June, 1876.
“Items of General News.” The Western Morning News, 17 August, 1876.
“Shocking Case.” Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 24 August, 1876.
“Fatal Fall of a House.” South London Chronicle, 26 August, 1876.
“Fatal Fall of a House.” Reynolds’s Newspaper, 26 August, 1876.
“Fall of a House in Southwark.” Salisbury Times, 19 August, 1876.
“Dilapidated Houses in Ewer-street, Southwark.” South London Chronicle, 11 November, 1876.
Though our book is subtitled “a genealogical journey,” it isn’t filling in the family tree that excites me most. It’s the history — and the mystery! — that inspire me above all, and I suspect many genealogy enthusiasts are the same. Searching out the family story opens windows into the past, through which all sorts of other stories appear. I can easily disappear down rabbit holes researching people totally unrelated to me, but using all the same tools I’d use to find my ancestors.
Take, for instance, two “terrors of the Borough” I came across while hunting through the British Newspaper Archive for mentions of Red Cross Street, now Redcross Way, and the Southwark family home for decades. In 1891, our great grandmother, 18-year-old Mary Anne Evans, was living there with her aunt, since her father had died and her mother had disappeared into the local workhouse. Handsome young Harry Deverill, 21 that census year, had moved into the street, too, and was working as a grocer. Soon their romance blossomed, and they were married at St Saviour’s Church (now Southwark Cathedral) in 1895. Given the timing, and the fact that Mary Anne had grown up in the street, it seems certain that they would have known of the terrors, Annie Bennett and John “Caster” Cannon. Caster — sometimes Coster and Costy — lived in the Mowbray Buildings, rough tenement housing where Mary Anne’s troubled sister Ellen also lived after her marriage fell apart and she began her downward spiral.
Throughout the 1890s, articles about Caster Cannon pop up in the newspaper archive. He was a “sweep and pugilist” about the same age as Harry, and had a dangerous reputation in the neighbourhood, less for pummelling other boxers than for pummelling his neighbours. In 1891 he and a fellow fighter were caught up in the death of a betting agent; and in 1895, he and another man living in the Mowbray Buildings were charged with striking a man in the head with sticks. The man headed up a rival gang, and his thugs and Caster’s thugs — thieves and bullies of the Borough — were engaged in an ongoing feud. Caster was “quite at home in the dock,” the press reported, “[and] conducted his case with great ability.”
The following August, the Illustrated Police News ran a piece titled “Oh, What a Surprise!” and revealed that Caster had been charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting women. He’d appeared frequently before the court for violent assaults, the paper claimed, and was “notorious as one of the most dangerous characters in the Borough.” A crowd of locals gathered outside the courthouse, anxious to hear the outcome of the charges, but they were not allowed in.
It seems Caster had been causing quite a stir in the street a few nights earlier, using “the vilest language possible and abusing his neighbours.” Police were called in by nine different people, mostly women, who alleged that Caster had assaulted them. One woman said he’d threatened to kill her, and struck her with a poker; another said he’d thrown a knife at her and threatened to kill her baby; a third said he’d spat in her face and thrown a flower pot at her. But each time a constable answered the call for help, Caster dashed inside and bolted his door. Finally, when a trio of constables came for him, he was apprehended.
After hearing the constable and the women testify, Caster claimed, “It’s all a pack of lies. These women want to put me away from my wife. I can’t be such a bad man, for I’ve got five little children and another one expected. I wish your worship would hear what my wife has to say.” But when his wife Mary Ann was called in, the magistrate asked her if she had recently come to him for a warrant against her husband, and she answered “Yes, sir. A week ago.” The charge of assaulting his wife was added to the other charges, and “the prisoner, who seemed dumbfounded by this turn of affairs, was then removed.”
A week later, another Borough brawl erupted in Caster’s absence, and this time Annie Bennett was charged with disorderly conduct and using obscene language. Annie was a 27-year-old laundress who lived in Redcross Court, one of the dank little alleys that snaked off Red Cross Street. A constable had spotted her fighting with another woman, and though he separated them, Annie “would not go away when requested, and used disgusting language.” She said she’d “have the liver out of the other woman because she had helped to get Caster Cannon two months.” She was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour, but it was not the first or last time she’d appear before the magistrate.
It didn’t take long for Caster to find trouble again once he’d done his time. In November, “John Cannon, who is described as a chimney sweep, but who is a well-known pugilist,” was charged with assaulting a fish curer named Ephraim Goodwin. It was another rivalry situation, and after a series of altercations between the two, Caster had appeared at Goodwin’s bedside one night, and punched him in the head as he lay sleeping. When the man woke, Caster punched him again “and then tried to ‘gnaw’ him.” Caster asked for leniency, since he had a wife and six children and was in poor health. The magistrate fined him £3, or one month’s time.
Reading on in the archive, it’s hard to muster sympathy for Caster Cannon. In early July of 1897, he approached the same magistrate, “a nervous individual seeking the protection of the court.” He claimed a gang of men had come into his lodgings in the middle of the night and threatened his life. The magistrate seemed amused by the “evident anxiety of the burly applicant,” but a week later, according to the Illustrated Police News in a piece headed “The Terror of the Borough,” Caster had indeed been beaten, and sat in court with his head “a mass of bandages.”
There were in all some six or seven charges and counter charges, to which the magistrate gave a very patient hearing, occupying nearly two hours. … Mary Shaw, wife of a costermonger, was the first complainant against Cannon. She alleged that Mike Smith, an ex-convict in her husband’s employment, refused to yield up to Cannon a shilling out of the day’s takings belonging to her husband, whereupon Cannon knocked him senseless with a blow in the stomach. The witness remonstrated, and Cannon struck her in the face, and threw a can of beer over her. Subsequently he emptied a quantity of filth over her barrow-load of strawberries. … Cannon was accustomed to demand money and beer of all comers. People in Redcross Court had put up with it, under fear of him, for years past. But when he moved to Queen’s Court, a few weeks ago, he tried the ‘same game’ with less success. She was aware that a party was made up to break into Cannon’s house, which was next door to hers, and to drag him out for punishment, but she was not the organiser of the party, nor did they rendezvous at her house. It was not true that her grievance against Cannon was that he objected to her boiling whelks in the copper, which belonged jointly to the two houses. Mike Smith corroborated Mrs. Shaw’s story, and charged Cannon with assaulting him, simply because he would not pay toll to the ‘bully of the court.’ … [He] was not one of the party who stormed Cannon’s abode at three o’clock in the morning, dragged him out of bed, and beat him black and blue, but he was glad to hear what had happened. … Passing from the dock to the witness-box Cannon gave his version of what had happened to him, and bitterly complained that a ‘mob’ of fifteen or twenty men broke down his door, smashed his furniture, beat him with sticks and pieces of iron while he was in his shirt, and would have killed him ‘like a rat’ but for the arrival of the police. … After further evidence, the magistrate said it was high time these disgraceful fights were put an end to, and sentenced Cannon and Selby, both of whom had been frequently convicted, to four months’ hard labour, and Smith to one month. On leaving the court, Selby rushed savagely at Cannon, and was narrowly prevented from again assaulting him.
From then on, mentions of Caster as “the terror of the borough” begin to dwindle. But his defender, the laundress Annie Bennett, earned the same nickname for her ongoing wild behaviour. She was a small woman with sharp features and a quick tongue, her arms “freely tattooed” with the names of various lovers — a jealous woman once tried to scrape off one of those names with broken glass, but Annie fought back with fervour. In 1899, when she was charged with being drunk and disorderly, she was sentenced to a year in an inebriates’ home in Bristol. She called the constables liars who wouldn’t let anyone off, and let loose a stream of “violent language” as she was taken from court. One article said she was a habitual drunkard who had had many similar convictions, and had “frequently distinguished herself in the many skirmishes and battles with which the history of Redcross Court is studded.”
But I always wonder about the stories behind these stories, and the clues that suggest different tellings, different views of these old slums of Victorian London and the people who lived there. It was home to them, after all, and the people who often wrote about the slums were outsiders, with an outsider’s vantage point (just like me, now). Redcross Court, where Annie Bennett lived, “possessed the most undesirable reputation as any slum in London,” but after eight months of her sentence, Annie escaped the inebriates’ home and made her way straight back there. She was caught, and sentenced to three months in prison, and when that was over, she returned to the Borough immediately, only to be caught up in a brawl that landed her in front of the magistrate. He asked her why she’d escaped in the first place, only to cause herself more trouble, and she answered that she’d heard Redcross Court — dilapidated and overcrowded — was going to be torn down by London County Council, and she thought she would like to see it again before it was no more. The article mocks “the sentimental side” of “the lady in question,” and her wish to see “the last of her much-beloved slum.” But at the same time, her wish rings true, and makes me all the more curious about who she really was, and what her neighbourhood was like from an insider’s perspective.
“Borough Roughs.” South London Chronicle, 10 August, 1895
“Caster Cannon Again.” South London Chronicle, 5 October, 1895
“Oh, What a Surprise!” Illustrated Police News, 22 August, 1896
“Life in the Borough.” South London Chronicle, 29 August, 1896
“The Rival Champions.” Daily Telegraph & Courier (London),4 November, 1896
“‘Caster’ Cannon Again.” South London Chronicle,3 July, 1897
“The Terror of the Borough.” Illustrated Police News, 17 July, 1897
“‘Terror’ Goes to Bath.” South London Press, 3 June, 1899
Page 5. South London Chronicle, 14 July, 1900.
“Habitual Drunkard’s Escape.” South London Press, 17 January, 1903
We’ve written about thieves aplenty in our book and on this blog too, even delving into stories about child thieves — but here’s a new twist: thieves who stole from children.
In searching out events that occurred on Red Cross Street, Southwark, where our family lived for generations, I came upon a newspaper article dated May 1893; it told of a 19-year-old woman named Mary Ann Blacklock, who’d pleaded guilty to several indictments for stealing the boots and clothing of nine-year-old Alice Fentum, the daughter of a labourer who lived in Red Cross Street.
On Good Friday, Alice was sent out on an errand, and soon encountered Mary Ann, who encouraged the girl to walk with her. They ambled for close to two hours, and ended up in a neighbourhood far from Alice’s home. They spent the night in a wash house, and in the morning, Mary Ann crept away with Alice’s boots under her arm. When Alice woke, she wandered out into the street and found a police constable, who returned her to her parents. Mary Ann was known to the police; it was said that she regularly “waylaid little children coming home from school, took them away to some secluded place, and stole their clothing.” She’d been convicted of similar offences several times before, and this time was sentenced to seven months hard labour.
But she wasn’t the only such thief. A quick search in the British Newspaper Archive, using terms like “robbing a child” and “stealing from children,” turns up plenty of examples. (Have a look at the headings in the list of articles below.)
In March of 1865, a woman named Ann Kernow stole a shawl from a five-year-old girl, and cried on being apprehended; and in July of 1873, Isabella Miller stole a little girl’s worsted stockings and hid them away in the passage of the dwelling where she was living. In January of 1890, Jane Burnside was charged with stealing (and of course pawning!) a pair of boots that belonged to her four-year-old niece. “PC Marshall said that when he took Burnside into custody she replied that it was all right. This was her 19th appearance.” Jemima Bennett, charged in 1899, had a similar “bad record,” and was sent to the Sessions for stealing from a five-year-old: she “took her shawl from her and made off.”
It’s hard to imagine sinking to such a low, no matter how desperate life becomes, but the whole story can never be told in a tiny newspaper mention, or even in court records. Ancestry holds an absolutely engrossing stash of records for females convicted for stealing skirts and boots and umbrellas and even bacon; sometimes the documents include startling biographical information — “husband and child in the same gaol” — and sorry looking mugshots reminiscent of the asylum photos that included our Ellen Evans. An initial search through the criminal database has not turned up any of the thieves-of-children mentioned here, though some may be lurking under different names.
Just the same, there are clues in the newspaper accounts that add detail to their stories. In April of 1892, Emily Blaber, “a servant out of situation,” was remanded for stealing a pair of boots from a five-year-old girl. And on Christmas Eve in 1897, Elizabeth Cook was charged with stealing a child’s jacket.
“The child was looking in the window of a sweetstuff shop at York-road, Battersea, when the prisoner went up to him and said, ‘Ain’t the sweets nice?’ She gave the child a halfpenny, telling him that she would take care of his coat while he entered the shop for some sweets. As soon as he entered the shop the woman made off with the coat. A working man named Winkworth Harbourne, of Belfern-street, Battersea, who had been watching the prisoner’s movements, went after her and gave her into custody. It was mentioned that the prisoner had been previously convicted for a similar offence. The magistrate said there was no more detestable creature than the thief who preys on the innocence of young children.”
Even if the jacket — or the money she’d get for it — was intended as a present for Elizabeth’s own child, the crime is despicable. But what drove these women to such measures in the first place? In both the newspaper accounts and the criminal register, many were repeat offenders. Throughout September of 1898, under the heading Apprehensions Sought, the Police Gazette ran three subsequent notices about Mary Ann Blacklock, the woman who had led little Alice Fentum out of Red Cross Street five years earlier:
“For stealing parcels of clothing from child outside pawnshop — MARY ANN BLACKLOCK, alias MARIAN BLACKLOCK, DAVIS, BLACKLAND, POLLY OTT, &c., age 24, height 5 ft. 2 in., complexion fresh, hair dark brown, eyes hazel, thick lips, pock marked … wearing dark clothing and shawl. A flower seller. May be found in the hop district. Information to be forwarded to the Metropolitan Police Office, New Scotland Yard, S.W.”
“Stealing from a Child.” Northampton Mercury, 11 March, 1865.
Some of the ancestors we wrote about in The Cowkeeper’s Wishspent 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.
I’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.
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.”
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.
“Death of an Eccentric Character.” South London Press, 17 December, 1881.
“Miserable Death of an Old Woman.” Gloucester Citizen, 12 December, 1881.
Some Victorian occupations have such colourful names you just can’t resist finding out more. That was the case when we came upon the term “Inspector of Nuisances.” John Errington was the first such inspector for Southwark, and from the 1850s on he prowled the streets south of the Thames sniffing out foul smells and unsanitary conditions, and bringing them to the attention of the Medical Officer of Health. We first discovered him in 1855, when he accused our great-great-great grandfather, Benjamin Jones, of keeping his stables in a deplorable condition and allowing dung and filth to accumulate in his yard.
Twenty years later Errington was still a thorn in Benjamin’s side; he’d had complaints from a local business to which Benjamin supplied milk, so he hid in the office of that establishment one day, and when Benjamin arrived with his delivery, Errington popped out and declared himself, and took the sample away for testing. It was discovered to be more than half water, and deemed an egregious case.
Scanning through newspapers, and through health reports available at the Wellcome Library, it seems this was a typical part of Errington’s work. If you sold bad fish or rotten cherries, he’d be after you if he found out about it, for his mission was “the discovery and abatement of nuisances” and the protection of the public’s health. And in an area so steeped in poverty, there was plenty to put that health in danger.
In June of 1866, he received a complaint about an “intolerable effluvium” coming from a house in Gravel Lane. Upon inspecting, he discovered the premises belonged to an undertaker named Mr. Hodges, who was in possession of a female body dead some three weeks. The corpse was rapidly decomposing, and Errington found the stench unbearable. Neighbours were decidedly anxious.
But Hodges claimed he was in a difficult position. A fortnight earlier, two sisters had come to him and asked him to remove their mother’s body from the workhouse, where she had died a week before; he took their word that they would pay the transport and burial expenses, and fetched the body and put it in his shed. Later the sisters denied having promised to pay him, and he was a poor man, he told Errington, and could not afford to pay the expenses himself. So the body sat there, decomposing further each day.
When the sanitary committee met to discuss the issue, Mr. Hodges was ordered to bury the woman at once, or face charges. He could “make the relatives pay the necessary expenses afterwards,” though there was no suggestion as to how he might do that, given it seems he’d already tried. And with their mother finally interred, what motivation would there be for the sisters to pay?
So many questions arise from this one little story. Under the Anatomy Act, unclaimed bodies of workhouse inmates, prisoners and so on could be used for medical research. Was this why the dead woman’s daughters wanted their mother removed from the workhouse? And did they wish to avoid the stigma of a so-called pauper burial? Was Hodges telling the whole truth as he knew it? Were the sisters as heartless as Hodges suggests? Or so poor that they couldn’t afford to bury their mother, despite best intentions? And if so, why didn’t the parish cover the costs in the end? Presumably they would have if she’d been left unclaimed at the workhouse.
Sadly the topic of bodies unburied wasn’t new to Errington and the Medical Officer of Health for whom he worked. Dr. Robert Bianchi, in hearing Hodges’ tale, reflected on another Southwark death two years earlier: a family had vacated their lodgings and left a body behind. Bianchi himself paid for the burial, “as no one else would do it.”
“A Dead Body Unburied for Three Weeks.” South London Press, 16 June, 1866
Medical Officer of Health Reports, Southwark. Wellcome Library