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.

 

Inspector of Nuisances

Chapter 1 - Cowkeeper Benjamin Jones
Our cowkeeper, Benjamin Jones, likely taken in the 1860s, some time after his first run-in with the Inspector of Nuisances.

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.

St Saviour's Board of Works copy
Courtesy the Wellcome Library

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.”

Sources

  • “A Dead Body Unburied for Three Weeks.” South London Press, 16 June, 1866
  • Medical Officer of Health Reports, Southwark. Wellcome Library