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
Tiny glowing reviews from readers are trickling in for The Cowkeeper’s Wish in various places. I especially love one that describes the setting as “the stinky London of Charles Dickens” and calls the book “a vivid story about regular people in the real world.” That’s what Dickens wrote about too; his characters were fictional, but the world he placed them in existed in all its sooty splendour.
Our ancestors, Benjamin and Margaret Jones, arrived in Red Cross Street in Southwark in the late 1830s, around the time Oliver Twist began appearing in monthly instalments in Bentley’s Miscellany. Some say the workhouse in Oliver Twist was modeled on the Mint Street workhouse, steps away from our ancestral home, and condemned by the Lancet as “a den of horrors.” Though the esteemed medical journal called for its removal and labeled the tramp ward “an open sty,” the workhouse remained in place until the 1920s, and is a landmark in our own family history. The Mint Street workhouse makes regular appearances in our story, and was sadly the eventual home for Benjamin and Margaret’s daughter, “Lazy Mary.” Family lore says that Mary entered the workhouse after her husband died, because she was too lazy to care for herself. There is more to the story, of course — no one enters a den of horrors out of laziness. But the fact that the story exists speaks volumes about the stigma attached to workhouse “inmates.”
Dickens had strong ties to our family’s neighbourhood. When he was just a boy, his father was sent to Marshalsea Prison under the debtors’ act. Some of Dickens’ siblings and their mother lived there too while the sentence was carried out, but Charles, just 12 at that point, lived nearby on Lant Street and worked in a blacking factory. Lant Street appears in the bottom left area of the map shown, and the letters “BD SCH” stand for “board school.” Many members of our family attended the Lant Street Board School, which opened in the late 1870s, and served the poor children of the area. In the late 1890s, the annual school report noted that “in a low locality like this,” a more distinctive school name connected to the history of the area might be a good idea. And since Dickens had already been commemorated in many placenames throughout the Borough, “Would not therefore Charles Dickens School, Lant Street, Southwark, be an appropriate name for this school?” It took years more for the change to come about, but finally, by 1912, the name was in place. Our grandmother Doris and her siblings attended, and so did many of their cousins.
Dickens placenames pop up throughout this neighbourhood: there’s Quilp Street, Copperfield Street, and Dickens Square. And tucked in behind Red Cross Street (now Redcross Way) is Little Dorrit Playground, put in place by the London County Council in 1901 to address the notion that childhood was “blighted” in this impoverished area. One writer claimed the children here were “more woe-begone, unwashed and unhealthy-looking” than any in the city. If you ask me, the girls above look ordinary and even lovely enough — but earlier pictures do show children in bare feet, with ragged clothing and an unkempt appearance.
If the playground was meant to brighten children’s lives, a social reformer wandering through shortly after it was put in place was not impressed. The space was surrounded by high walls. It had one gas lamp in the centre and a drinking fountain. “It is essentially a playground for rough children, no seats because of the encouragement to loafers, nor any caretaker. I have only been there during school hours,” he admitted, “when few children were about.”
The area has changed, of course, since those “stinky” days. While much of our years-long research was done online, we visited London to see the site of our story for ourselves. It gave us chills to walk along Redcross Way, up past Crossbones Cemetery, and over to Borough Market. We ate lunch on the grounds of Southwark Cathedral, where Benjamin and Margaret and others in our line were married, and we studied in the local history library, right next to St. George the Martyr Church, where Little Dorrit was married, and where a wall from Marshalsea Prison still stands. These are just some of the remnants that are left from the years when our family lived and loved here.
For some wonderful pictures and stories about Dickens’ connections to Southwark, visit the Southwark Heritage Blog.