Category Archives: City of London

Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans

It is an undeniable fact that the number of amputations performed in this and other countries has been greatly augmented of late years, attributable no doubt to the numerous accidents occasioned by the increasing use of Machinery and Steam power in all departments. This circumstance, in conjunction with the casualties of the late war, have caused the subject to be prominently before the notice of the medical profession.

William Robert Grossmith, Amputations and Artificial Limbs, (1857)

Sleath ShopTrade Card for Sleath’s Improvements, 18th C (c)Fitzwilliam Museum

AN00436764_001_lAdvertising Feature for Sleath & Jackson, c1800 (c)British Museum

When Emma Sleath married James William Skelton on 21st Nov 1866 at St Giles Church, Camberwell, at the age of thirty, she may well have been relieved to be finally leaving her family to marry such an eligble bachelor. A successful West India merchant who had grown rich through trading in mahogany (see A Tale of Exploitation), James William was a respectable decade older than Emma, as well as having a substantial home on the outskirts of London – Westle House in Moreland Road, Croydon. Whether Emma knew about his British Honduran daughter, whom he’d fathered while establishing his business out in the Caribbean, is open to question.  However, with three decades already behind her, Emma would not have been naïve in the ways of the world, and had possibly already resigned herself to the fact that marrying an older successful man necessitated accepting some sort of baggage.

Of course she may even have been delighted at the thought of becoming a step-mother, and had perhaps already established a good relationship with the teenage Louisa Arabella. Yet what can often be an emotionally fraught situation today, would no doubt have created the same conflicts for the Victorians – particularly when it came to the issue of illegitimacy. But having witnessed her father’s early death and her mother’s fast re-marriage, followed by the birth of two half-siblings, Emma would possibly have accepted this situation as an inescapable part of life in the mid-nineteenth century (where death was always lurking close by).

Emma’s Father, John Henry Sleath, had died suddenly of apoplexy (a cerebral haemorrhage) in early 1843 at the age of forty-five, when Emma was just six. Only several months after this tragic event, her mother quickly, and perhaps rather sensibly, went on to marry her late husband’s younger business partner, William Robert Grossmith. The Sleath family had established their successful business in Fleet Street a century earlier, when they had grown wealthy through supplying trusses and artificial body parts to the Georgian Court and high-ranking military. What the Sleaths (and their business partners) had learned to excel at over the years was the mechanics of creating life-like and moveable prosthetic limbs, an invention which Emma’s stepfather would continue to develop further.

In fact, so well-respected was Wiliam Grossmith that in 1856 he published a book on the subject: Amputations and Artificial Limbs (or Grossmith on Amputations, Artificial Legs, Hands &c.) Surprisingly, this was not the first book to which his name was attached – in 1827, shortly before his ninth birthday, the ‘memoir’ of his life as a prodigy child actor was published. Entitled The Life and Theatrical Excursions of William Robert Grossmith the Juvenile Actor, not yet nine years of age, this book followed on from a shorter pamphlet, published in 1825, with the title The Life of the Celebrated Infant Roscius, Master Grossmith of Reading, Berks, only seven years and a quarter old.

Although William Robert Grossmith is a very tenuous connection to the Skelton family (not only was he Emma Sleath’s step-father, but Emma herself is not a blood relative), he is, nevertheless, an important one in the history of the Sleath-Skeltons. His early success on the stage and his theatrical connections can be claimed to be one of the influences on Emma’s youngest son, the Edwardian actor-producer, Herbert Sleath-Skelton – who went by the stage name of Herbert Sleath. (More about this colourful character in a future post). 

William Robert Grossmith was a relatively famous child actor in the 1820s, and deemed to be ‘the Infant Roscius’ of his time. His younger brother, Benjamin Grossmith, also went on to follow him on the stage at a very early age. This was towards the tail end of the hey-day of the Georgian child prodigy actor (which also included girls), the most famous being Master Betty, or William Henry West Betty, said to be the original ‘infant Roscius’ – Roscius being a term once used to describe an actor of outstanding talent (after the famous Roman actor, Quintus Roscius), but which may be unfamiliar to readers today.

AN01238777_001_lWilliam Grossmith in various acting roles c1825 (c)British Museum

And if this was not enough to excite a humble family historian such as myself, I discovered that William and Benjamin Grossmith had an even  younger brother who also had a gift for impersonation  – George Grossmith I. Not only would he become the father of George Grossmith II (who had a famous son, George Grossmith III, hence the numbers) and his younger brother Weedon but he was said to be a talented and humorous solo performer in his own right. His sons later said that their father would leave his family in London for several months of the year in order to tour the country with his entertaining literary ‘lectures’, a task he was somehow able to combine with his day job as criminal court reporter for The Times (a role which George II eventually took over). His famous sons, George and Weedon Grossmith, went on to become successful and multi-talented actors, producers, writers and artists, and are perhaps best remembered today for their illustrated (and very funny) book The Diary of a Nobody, first published in 1892.

As you might imagine, the discovery of this connection to the  famous Grossmith Family left me elated. As a teenager I had watched the 1979 BBC adaption of ‘The Diary’, although it was my younger sister who owned a copy  of the book (being more interested in social history at that time), and who was particularly taken with the story of the trials and tribulations of the deludedly aspirational Pooter family of Holloway. However, the Grossmith brothers had themselves grown up in a very different household to the fictional characters they lampooned. Theirs was a very middle-class and Bohemian upbringing, where famous actors of the day, including Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, were regular guests to the family home, alongside prominent literary figures, such as George Sala.

George-Grossmith-senior-1820-1880 (2)George Grossmith I

Diary of a NobodyWeedon Grossmith and George Grossmith II (and ‘The Diary‘)

What was perhaps even more surprising to discover was that Evelyn Waugh’s father, Arthur – who professed ‘The Diary’ to be one of his favourite books – would often read out extracts to his sons during the frequent evening theatrical reading sessions in his study. Those readers who have followed my genealogical quest from its beginning (see Begin Again) will know that it was the documentary, Fathers and Sons, (and Alexander Waugh’s accompanying book) about the male line of the literary Waugh family that first re-ignited my interest in returning to research my own family history. So it was with a certain sense of satisfaction that I learnt of this coincidence.

Indeed, in 1930 Evelyn Waugh went so far as to make the following observations on the Grossmiths’ book in the Daily Mail newspaper: I still think that the funniest book in the world is Grossmith’s (sic) Diary of A Nobody. If only people would really keep journals like that. Nobody wants to read other people’s reflections on life and religon and politics, but the routine of their day, properly recorded, is always interesting, and will become more so as conditions change with the years.

The Australian academic, Peter Morton, suggests that Waugh not only identified with the Pooters’ wayward but ‘modern’ socially climbing son, Lupin, but could see in Mr and Mrs Pooter the petit bourgeois sensibilities of his own parents (from which, just like Lupin, he wished to escape). It would appear that in later life Waugh made an extensive study of the diary, comparing it with the original series published in the Magazine Punch from 1888 to 1889. This was after receiving a copy from his mother at Christmas in 1946 – something that may have been prompted by his mention of the diary in his recently published novel, Brideshead Revisited (where Lady Marchmain reads extracts to her family).

But our story of the Grossmiths, like Alexander Waugh’s investigation into his family, begins with an earlier generation: namely with the prodigous talents of Emma’s stepfather, William Robert Grossmith (uncle to the more famous Grossmiths who succeeded him). Born in Reading in 1816 (although said to be born in 1818!), William  was the oldest son of a Looking-Glass and Picture Frame Manufacturer (that very title conjuring up the Victorian mysticism of Alice and her adventures).

Even as an infant, William seemingly already showed great talent for memory and impersonation, and a visit to the local theatre at age six appeared to have left an impression on him. Thereafter he began to learn theatrical songs off by heart, showing an aptitude for singing tunes by ear. When his father introduced him to Charles Kemble, an actor and the manager of Convent Garden Theatre, Kemble described the young Grossmith as the greatest theatrical prodigy he had ever met with and advised the elder Grossmith to first try him on the boards of one of the minor theatres.

After success in 1824 at the Royal Cobourg/Coburg Theatre in Southwark (now The Old Vic) performing several popular comic songs of the age – an opportunity which came about due to an introduction to James Jones*, the theatre’s founder – young William withdrew from the stage at the behest of his mother, who was concerned about the effect acting  might have on his moral development. However, shortly afterwards  this bright and inquistive child encountered the works of Shakespeare, and began to learn to recite whole plays, all the while displaying a full range of adult emotions. His particular favourite was Richard III, and so it came to pass that several months after ‘retiring’,  the Infant Roscius was back at The Cobourg, acting out scenes from this play to a rapturous audience, as well as playing to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre for one week (after being offered a more lucrative contract by the Manager).

* The first book to describe William’s juvenile career (in 1825) was dedicated to James Jones who has since honoured him with the title of his ADOPTED CHILD.

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444px-Royal_Coburg_Theatre_1822Contemporary external and internal views of the Royal Cobourg

Although Mrs Grossmith continued to try to thwart the attempts of those who were keen to put William on the stage, after a while the Grossmiths were eventually persuaded to allow their son to give a full evening performance at their local theatre – an event which consisted of short acts featuring different Shakespearian characters, interspersed with comic songs. So impressed were the Reading audiences with the young Grossmith that William and his father eventually set off on a tour of the provinces, along with an elaborate portable stage which had been specially constructed to accomodate the boy’s small size. William even found time to give a private performance to the Princess Augusta at her home in Frogmore Lodge, Windsor, as well as to perform at the Chertsey residence of Mrs Fox (Elizabeth Armistead) – the elderly widow of Charles James Fox, the famous Whig politician, and a controversial figure who in her youth had also appeared on the stage.

Hancock, G.; William Robert Grossmith (1818-1899), as Richard in 'Richard III' by William ShakespeareWilliam Grossmith as Richard III in the Tent Scene (c)V & A Museum

The childhood memoirs of young William draw to a close in 1827 with the grand announcement that the New Argyle-Rooms (off Regent Street) in London are booked for his appearance during the upcoming season, in an attempt to woo the fickle West End audiences. Thus the booklet ends on this positive note for William’s future success: . . . it may be confidently predicted, that, whether our very youthful actor should stop short at the point of histrionic excellence he has already reached, or whether ( . . .) he will be too conspicuous and remarkable not be generally observed, and his beams too pure and splendid not to be constantly admired.

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However, by 1830 not only had the New Argyll Rooms ceased to exist, having burnt down in a fire, but with William now an adolescent (the playbill appears to have taken some liberties with William’s real age), his ‘Farewell Tour’ had already been announced (see playbill above). The playbill (below) of the following year ushers in the new infant prodigy: William’s younger brother, Benjamin Who is now but five years and four months old. It is interesting to note that a later newspaper advertisement from 1833 indicates that the two Grossmith brothers are still occasionally acting together, so perhaps it was not quite as easy for the teenage William to relinquish his fame (and fortune). And in fact a further discovery (while making a final edit to this chapter) showed that the two brothers had indeed continued to act together throughout the 1830s, touring Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland, albeit William still having the lesser role.

2014HD7965_2500 (2)Playbill feat. Grossmith brothers, 1831 (c)V & A Museum, London

Roscius

The young William’s slip from top billing is perhaps unsurprising. In the history of the theatre, very few juvenile actors have ever enjoyed the same level of success as adults – to wit, the young Master Betty, who gave up acting when he went up to Cambridge at seventeen, but after an unsuccessful comeback was forced to retire at twenty and live from the wealth he had accumulated in his youth. Perhaps our William was lucky in that from an early age he also showed a great interest in things of a scientific nature. In the latter biography of his childhood  it is remarked that during his country-wide tours he would often collect fossils in his free time, and when visiting the north of England it was reported that: Nothing in this quarter engaged the boy’s attention so much as the mode of weaving cotton by the vast powers of steam, so multifarious in its application. 

Two years earlier, in 1825, the writer of his first biography also mentioned that, alongside his powers of mimicry, a genius for poetry and song, and appreciation of art and architecture, the young William is equally as curious in scientific and mechanical acquirements. He views minutely all kinds of machinery, he enquires and examines into its nature, its use, and its properties; a mere cursory inspection will neither gratify his senses, nor satisfy his enquiring mind; everything must have its explanation, for he observes, “everything has its use”.

Although William Robert Grossmith was obviously interested in things of a mechanical nature, we  do not know how his conversion from child actor to mechanical surgeon was achieved: most likely he took up some course of study or apprenticeship in his teens, which he may have combined with intermittent touring. Unsurprisingly, it would seem that Emma’s stepfather showed the same sort of devotion to the craft of creating artificial limbs as he previously did to stage acting. In the book describing this successful second career, published when he was but thirty-nine, (after fourteen years of running the business – and of marriage to Emma’s mother), he outlines at great length how to construct the perfect limb for different types of injuries. Although it makes for slightly gruesome reading, it is fascinating to note (from the case histories of past patients) how many people at that time lost limbs in the employ of the new steam railways – in addition to those that were amputated due to illness (often in childhood) and riding accidents. As Grossmith himself points out (and stated in the introduction to this chapter): It is an undeniable fact that the number of amputations performed in this and other countries has been greatly augmented of late years, attributable no doubt to the numerous accidents occasioned by the increasing use of Machinery and Steam power in all departments. This circumstance, in conjunction with the casualties of the late war*, have caused the subject to be brought prominently before the notice of the medical profession. * The Crimean War

Artificial_left_leg,_London,_England_Wellcome_L0057949

Artificial leg by William Grossmith (c) Science Museum, London

Artificial_left_arm_Wellcome_L0037165Artificial Arm, by William Grossmith (c) Wellcome Collection, London

In 1856, William Robert Grossmith was granted Freedom of the City of London by redemption (meaning that he possibly paid  for the privilege). However, by the mid-nineteenth century the advantages to being a Freeman were not as great as they had once  been, and perhaps William was more concerned about the status this honour would confer on him than anything else. In the frontispiece to his book on amputations, he dedicates the work to William Lawrence, president of the Royal College of Surgeon’s and a leading opthalmic surgeon of the time, who also treated Queen Victoria (and was made a Serjeant Surgeon, or surgeon of the royal household). In this dedication, Grossmith mentions the many patients which this eminent surgeon had sent to his business in Fleet Street, and praises him for his promotion of the advancement of the Industrial Arts. So it is perhaps while writing the book that he decided to apply for the Freedom of the City, an act which he may have reasoned would eventually lead to more professional kudos.

Not only did William Grossmith win the medal for artificial eyes at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, but accolades followed from several other international exhibitions, including the Great Industrial Exhibition in Dublin in 1853, and the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855, where Grossmith won medals for his artificial limbs. These awards were always  mentioned in the frequent advertisements for the business which appeared in the regular newspapers of the day.

After William died in 1899 (one year after his step-daughter Emma), the business survived well into the 20th century with the name W. R. Grossmith Ltd intact. Before William’s death the company had already moved its premises to 110 the Strand, then later round the corner to 12 Burleigh Street. Unfortunately, William’s immediate successor to the business – his son, William  Benjamin – had died almost twenty years previously at the age of 30 (while working for the company), and William Grossmith’s step-son John Henry Sleath (Emma’s older brother), who had initially been apprenticed to the business as a Surgical Mechanist, had eventually taken a different professional direction. (His other step-son, George Sleath, who had worked for the business had unfortunately also died relatively young).

When William made his will in 1887, he had still not specified who would take over the company on his death – mentioning a codicil he intended to make to clarify this. This was, however, never written and it has so far proven impossible to find out what happened to the firm after William’s demise. I am, however, convinced that such an astute business man would have organised his succession planning before his death at the age of eighty-one – particularly as the business was still limping on (no pun intended) even after I was born. But after two centuries of trading, the company of W. R. Grossmith finally went into liquidation – an event which took place in 1966 at their registered office in Africa House*, Kingsway.

*Observant readers may recall that it was in this very building, less than twenty years later, where I started my career as a genealogist (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born).

Over the two hundred years that the company sold trusses and artificial body parts, it moved between owners and addresses (mainly all in Fleet Street), although the Sleath connection was the thread which continued to run through the company’s history. When Emma’s father (John Henry Sleath) took over the business as a young man, he himself had inherited it from a Mr John Williamson, his father’s  business partner – who in a strange coincidence had also become his step-father. So perhaps when John Henry Sleath later took on the young William Grossmith he had in mind the possibilty of the very same role for him. Certainly the speedy way which Emma’s mother remarried (already called Mrs Grossmith when the will was finalised) makes one think this scenario was not unlikely.

Interestingly, a couple of years ago an online search alerted me to a letter in a 1925 edition of the  journal Notes and Queries which asked about the relationship of  William Robert Grossmith to Sleath, the artificial limb maker, but at the time I was unable to discover if anyone had ever replied to this rather unusual query. Then while putting the finishing touches to this chapter I unexpectedly came across both a copy of the original question – and the response – which I have included below.

AN00439340_001_l(c)The British Museum, London

John Henry Sleath’s will was indeed to be found, although it is no longer kept at Somerset House (a place I remember from my days as an heir hunter). With a credit card and an internet connection, the pre-1858 (Doctors’ Commons) wills can be  ordered on-line instantaneously from the National Archives, and lately even the Probate Registry (for wills post-1858) has moved into online ordering, considerably speeding up research time.

Interestingly, John Henry Sleath’s simple and uncomplicated will (made in 1841, two years  before he died) stated that everything he possessed should be given to his wife Martha, and appointed her his sole executrix. There were no caveats about remarriage (such as  in my great-great grandfather’s will to his much younger wife, Mary Ann),  and in the document Sleath stated that he entrusted Martha with his estate well knowing that she will do the best for our children. So it would appear that he regarded his wife as a trustworthy partner,  and combined with the absence of  financial restrictions on her remarrying, this may point to the fact that  William Grossmith could well have been already lined up to step into John Henry Sleath’s shoes. And so it is perhaps fitting that it is Emma’s step-father who should have the last say in this chapter, linking as he does the story of the Grossmiths and Emma’s actor-manager son, Herbert Sleath, who worked with his older Grossmith cousins, George and Weedon, on many occasions.

Last year (2016) was the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and to mark the ocassion the BBC created a Shakespeare on Tour website in which, to my delight, William Robert Grossmith was featured, using his early life to  illustrate the history of childhood Shakespearean actors. This was mainly because of the discovery of old playbills (such as the ones above) which showed Young Master Grossmith touring in the north-east. (The link to the above-mentioned site is here and the link to the short recording of schoolchildren discussing Grossmith’s stage career in an acting workshop is here, and is an especially touching tribute). However, it is interesting to note that the website states that: It’s difficult to find details of Grossmith’s life after he retired. According to an article in The Idler magazine of February 1893, the comic actor and writer George Grossmith, remembered today as the author of ‘The Diary of a Nobody’, claimed to be nephew of Master Grossmith the Infant Roscius. It seems that no-one can ever imagine the delightful child actor eventually becoming a successful maker of artificial limbs, hands, eyes, noses &C.

But perhaps one of the main things that unites the young William Grossmith with the older one, is a sense of playfulness. In an interview with the New York Times at a Surgical Aid Society meeting in London in 1889, not only did Grossmith mention how he can spot one of his ‘own’ legs walking down Fleet Street, but he also enthusiastically discusses the quality of his artificial eyes (which seemingly  fill a prominent place in the window of his body parts’ shop). According to Grossmith, his artificial eyes (which he was proud to state were worn by MP, actors and the clergy) will last much longer than those of his competitors due to the fact that they are made from durable French enamel.  Despite this advantage, the technology was obviously still not available to create an unbreakable eye. I have one customer Grossmith starts, who uses 6 or 7 every year. He is a member of the Athanaeum Club, where there are marble washstands, and is constantly letting his eye drop on these and break when he takes it out with the object of cleaning it.

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See you next month!

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2017

 

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Black Sheep and Blackfriars

By the cloisterly Temple, and by Whitefriars (there, not without a glance at Hanging-sword Alley, which would seem to be something in his way), and by Blackfriars-Bridge, and Blackfriars-road, Mr. George sedately marches to a street of little shops lying somewhere in that ganglion of roads from Kent and Surrey, and of streets from the bridges of London, centering in the far-famed Elephant who has lost his Castle formed of a thousand four-horse coaches, to a stronger iron monster than he, ready to chop him into mince-meat any day he dares.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)

As regular readers may remember, when my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, finally got round to marrying his much-younger second wife, Mary Ann Hawkins, in 1864, the couple had been together for over a decade and presided over a family of six. However, when James Skelton died only three years later, shortly after his 68th birthday, his will stipulated that his estate should be divided up between his wife and four children. As mentioned before (see Where there’s a Will . . . and the Sun), it was the two oldest boys – William and James jnr – who were not named in the document. In the case of William it is perhaps unsurprising, as all evidence points to the fact that he was not James’ son. And although I have never been able to confirm the death of James Skelton jnr, his absence from any records after the 1871 census (where he was living at home in Aldred Road with his widowed mother and younger siblings) makes me suspect that he most likely died as a young man.

I would very much like to be proven wrong, though, and every so often make another valiant search for him, never giving up hope of finding a middle-aged James Skelton jnr somewhere – perhaps running a garage, or working as a dodgy builder/decorator (two career choices his younger brothers made). But while my search for the elusive James has drawn a blank, in the intervening years I have discovered more about the other child who was not mentioned in the will – his older half-brother, William Hawkins Skelton – and the boy I sometimes think of as the black sheep of the family.

I have yet to come across any records of William’s birth: he suddenly appears as a fully-formed infant with his unmarried mother in the 1851 census. Frustratingly, Mary Ann is not at home on the day of census (the last weekend in March), but is described as a ‘visitor’ to a house in riverside Lambeth where an oil man called George Tiltman and his young family live. The Tiltmans, however, have a servant who is the same age as Mary Ann. Could this be the reason she is at their house? More plausible, perhaps, than the theory of one of William’s descendants: that the Tiltmans may have been philanthropists who took pity on a young, impoverished single mother. I do feel that this may be putting 21st century sensibilities into mid-19th century heads, and that it is unlikely that Mary Ann would have lived with the family without playing some sort of functional role in the household. Interestingly, The Society of Genealogists points out on their website that: Apparently unrelated household members noted as visitors or lodgers, and sometimes servants, may in fact be members of the extended family. Their surnames may give clues to in-laws or marriage partners. This is also the case when in-laws are specifically recorded.

While that has certainly been true with other ancestors (see A Rose in Holly Park), I have found no familial connections to the Tiltmans. To complicate matters further, at the time of the census Mary Ann was already two months pregnant with her second child, James jnr, who was born in October of that year. The official birth certificate declares her address to be 83, Waterloo Road, Southwark (a stone’s throw from the Tiltman residency), but does not name the child’s father. However, as mentioned in an earlier post (see When I Grow Rich), the spring census states that two unmarried ‘tailoresses’ were living at this address, which could point to the fact that Mary Ann (described in later records as a ‘needlewoman’) was lodging with contemporaries.

As I have previously pointed out, this line of reasoning does of course open up speculation as to whether the young women, including Mary Ann, were indeed what they said they were. Waterloo Road and environs was not exactly a salubrious area – and the coming of the new Waterloo Bridge Station (with its ‘iron monsters’ that Dickens alludes to when describing Mr George’s foray over Blackfriars Bridge into South London in the passage from Bleak House, above) did little to improve the neighbourhood.

waterloo-station-and-the-surrounding-area-being-developed-date-1848-g38835

Constructing Waterloo Bridge Station when Mary-Ann lived nearby

So William’s start in life is shrouded in mystery, although I think it is safe to say that he was not James Skelton’s child. The only consistent ‘fact’ about him is that throughout his life he names Christ Church, Southwark (sometimes erroneously giving the location as Blackfriars, Surrey – perhaps because the church is on Blackfriars Road), as his birth parish. I have noticed that many of my ancestors  always remembered the exact London parish where there were born, however small, yet often make ‘errors’ with other facts. It seems strange that they never forgot this throughout their lives, despite many of them constantly being on the move from a young age, and indicates the bureaucratic links that the inhabitants had with the parish of their birth.  Unfortunately, many of the parish records of Christ Church were destroyed along with the old church in a bombing raid, in April 1941, so there is no way of knowing if Mary Ann took her infant son to be baptised at the church.

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Christ Church c1800 (Great Surrey Street became Blackfriars Rd)

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William Hawkins Skelton was most likely named after his maternal grandfather, William Hawkins snr, and it was his younger half-brother James jnr who had all the honour of being James and Mary Ann’s first born. However, despite this, William was soon part of the growing Skelton-Hawkins family and in the 1861 census he can be found as an 11 year-old schoolboy living at 35 Aldred Road (where the family were to stay for almost half a century) along with Mary Ann and James snr, and three half-siblings. Ten years later, in the 1871 census, he was at the same address (now minus his elderly stepfather, but with yet another half-brother), and in 1881, at the grand old age of 31, the census records him again as being unmarried and still residing at Aldred Road. It is not until the following decade that we find him with a family of his own: wife Annie (ten years younger) and three young children. By the turn of the century, four more children have arrived and William gives all the impression of a settled, middle-aged, family man.

But things are often not what they appear. When relying on census records it is easy to forget that they are only brief snapshots across the decades (see Moments in Time) and many events can take place in the ‘hidden’ years between. Not only that, but for various reasons a certain percentage of the population were tempted to be less than truthful about their situations. To wit, William’s own mother, who, in 1861 was described as being a widow with five children and working as the housekeeper/servant to the retired widower, James Skelton. Of course, it was all those children which gave the game away. After all, what elderly man would employ a live-in help with an accompanying brood of five when a single woman, unencumbered by a young family, could just as easily have filled the vacancy?

And so it should not have been a surprise to suddenly discover that, between the ages of 21 and 31, our William slipped out of sight to marry and have a family of four, then leave his wife to return to his mother in Kennington. It seems such a modern story, and yet there is a horrible twist to it. It would appear that once William left his wife, some of his children assumed William to be dead – or regarded him as so. And thus it came to pass that when his oldest daughter, Alice Margaret, married as a teenager in 1894, her father was officially recorded as a deceased painter/decorator. For those of us who have experienced the loss of a parent while relatively young, this revelation may come as an ugly shock.

I still remember that powerful episode of East Enders (from my soap-watching days) when ‘Dirty Den’ came back from the dead and his daughter Sharon was confronted with the awful truth of what her father had done. The story focused on the conflicting emotions which ensued, and I can only imagine how William’s daughter would have reacted had she come across her supposedly deceased father on the streets of Southwark, especially if she believed that both her parents had been complicit in the deception. And who has not lost someone close and had the terrible (recurring?) dream where the person in question is not only found to have been alive all along, but is in fact discovered living nearby?

In the summer of 1871, just three weeks after the census showed the twenty-one year old William living at home and uncharacteristically working as a school teacher (possibly one of those untrained teaching positions which helped to maintain discipline), he married a widow, 12 years his senior, at the local registry office. What his mother thought of this situation is anyone’s guess, particularly as William’s new bride already had a young family of four – although Mary Ann did agree to be their official witness. Despite the fact that Elizabeth Sarah Chappell (née Sparks) was then already pregnant with their first child (a boy named Arthur William), she was only one month into her pregnancy, and most likely not even aware of it herself. So I do not believe that was the reason for their marriage. But what I imagine to be more likely is that this older, recently widowed woman, already experienced in the ways of ‘married love’, was perhaps very appealing to the young William, who may have found life rather suffocating at home with his mother and teenaged siblings. He might have even still felt alienated by the absence of provisions for him in his stepfather’s will, three years earlier. And at twenty-one, he no doubt gave little thought to the future of the four fatherless children he had suddenly ‘inherited’ with his marriage.

The unexpected union of Elizabeth and William produced a further three children of their own, and then in 1881, when William is to be found back at Aldred Road under his mother’s wing, Elizabeth appears on the same census with five of her seven children, and describes herself as married – living apart from husband. But before long she is back to calling herself a widow, although (as expected) she keeps her new married name of Skelton. So something which might have started out initially as a misunderstanding – that Mr Skelton is the deceased husband (rather than Mr Chappell) – eventually becomes the family line. And in 1891, up pops William again in the latest census with his new ‘wife’ Annie Skelton (née Lipsham) and another set of children, so Elizabeth would have possibly had no choice by then but to oficially call herself a widow (as divorce was only for the very wealthy).

Even on her mother’s death in 1920, Elizabeth’s oldest daughter from her first marriage describes her as Widow of William Skelton, House Painter (Journeyman). As William did not die until five years later, either she believed her mother’s story or was complicit in the lie. Another scenario is that William (or a family member) tricked the Chappell-Skeltons into believing that William had died at some point – although this idea does seem rather far-fetched. But it is of course also possible (and more plausible) that everyone in the family knew he was alive and living with another woman, and just kept quiet about this fact to satisfy the authorities. One day I hope I will eventually find out the truth about William!

When one of William’s descendants contacted me a couple of years ago, he confimed what I had expected about William’s second ‘bigamous’ marriage. And even more excitingly, he was able to supply extra details about William’s first family by telling me the story of his own great-grandfather, James Frederick Skelton. Born in 1873, in Bethnal Green during his parents’ short sojourn out of south London, James was the 2nd of William’s children with the widow Elizabeth Chappell (the first being Arthur William). When James was born, his father’s profession was described as a Tramway Car Conductor. Interestingly, while William had described himself as a Gas Fitter on his marriage certificate, as previously mentioned he was said to be a School Teacher on the 1871 census several weeks earlier, a Journeyman Plumber in early 1872 (when Arthur William was born), a General Labourer in 1881 (when he was back at Aldred Road briefly). And for the latter part of his life he oscillates between a House Decorator and a House Painter, often adding that wonderfully elusive Victorian & Etc. I don’t doubt he did all these things (and more besides), but it does give the impression of a risk-taking or ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit – the kind of man who might easily have had two wives!

In 1906, William’s son, James Frederick, married a heavily-pregnant local Brixton girl, and his sister, Alice Margaret, and her husband were the witnesses at the wedding. However, unlike on Alice’s marriage certificate, there is no mention of his father William being ‘deceased’. Three weeks later James Henry Skelton was born – the grandfather of the ‘long lost cousin’ who contacted me, and the first of nine children the newly-married couple would have together.

James Henry (or Jim) lived a long and fruitful life, not dying until 1990. His descendant, Mark Coxhead, told me that at one stage an uncle agreed to undertake family research for the old man, but that his grandfather declined the offer. Mark had always believed this was to do with him being born only a few weeks after his parents’ marriage in 1906, but had later wondered if it might also havee been connected with the ‘bigamous’ situation of his grandfather William’s so-called second marriage. However, I think it is more likely that the old man did not want the past raked over in the off-chance that, like many of his generation, something distasteful – and perhaps still unknown – would be found lurking in the woodshed (where old branches of the family tree were stacked).

Nowadays, we all thrill to family histories which include illegitimate births, criminal records, workhouse and asylum admissions &Etc. But trawl not too far back and most of those born at the turn of the previous century were not so keen to go prodding about in the closets of their past. Victorian sensibilities died hard, and 20th century families were still afraid of ‘scandals’. So it is not surprising that as one neared the end of life it would have been more comforting to let the past remain there, particularly after the upheaval (physical and mental) caused by two world wars, which may have  also resulted in the loss of family members. As Mark pointed out, although his grandfather had served in WW2 he never talked about his wartime experiences. Like my own grandfather’s service in the Hussars in the Great War, no-one in the family knew what he had witnessed – and I have explored the ramifications of this silence in more detail in a previous post (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers).

It would seem, though, that small skeletons have indeed tumbled out of their respective cubby-holes. Records show that both James Frederick and his older brother, Arthur William, spent a large proportion of their young adulthood in the pre-war WW1 military (as my own grandfather did), joining different regiments in the 1890s, and both were sent to India for most of their 12 year stint in the army. (My grandfather was also said to have been in India before the Great War, although like many who served at that time his army records were lost during WW2 bombing). James and Arthur were both discharged in 1905 – just in time for James to marry, start his family, then re-enlist with his brother at the outbreak of war in August 1914 (when both were relatively old for active combat, although obviously experienced as soldiers). The two Skelton brothers were discharged in 1918, shortly before the end of the war.

The ‘family skeletons’ which arise from the military records are certainly not scandalous, but paint a colourful picture of William’s oldest sons, in particular Arthur William. Not only does he seem to consistently lie about his age on his enlistment forms, but throughout most of his Indian service Arthur is found to be repeatedly disobeying orders. His conduct sheets include the following remarks: Drunk and improperly dressed returning to barracks; Absent from Tattoo; Neglecting to obey station orders – being out of bounds.

As punishments for these offences he is confined to barracks, endures detention, and is fined several shillings. He is promoted then demoted, but despite all this his character is described as good on his discharge forms. I do not know what happened to Arthur William after he returned to civilian life, but he does not seem to have favoured marriage and family life, like his brother. For his part, James Frederick, while never drunk on duty, is often heftily fined, as well as being punished with month-long dentention, for being AWOL. I was also fascinated to learn that both brothers enter the army with tatoos on their right arms: Arthur a cross; James a heart and flower (details which could only be gleaned from the army records). Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have such information  from my grandfather’s time in the military! 

arthur_and_james_frederick_skelton-3

Arthur & James Skelton in tropical uniform (c) Mark Coxhead

It is interesting to note that when both brothers join the army in the 1890s, they give their father, William Skelton, as their next-of-kin. When re-enlisting in 1914, however, James Frederick names his wife and children, while the unmarried Arthur lists his mother and sister (Alice Margaret). Thus it would seem that William Hawkins Skelton was at least in contact with his sons while they were younger. Perhaps a better theory than those I have previously suggested is that William was regarded as ‘deceased’ by the members of the family who were angered by his domestic arrangements, and not by those ones who (grudgingly?) accepted his lifestyle choice. I certainly know of one or two modern families where such things have happened, and the phrase he/she is dead to me can stll be heard today. Interstingly, it is only the female relatives who describe William as ‘deceased’ – which is also concurrent with theories that women are generally more concerned about social status and ‘keeping up appearances’ than men.

The other curious  fact is that Mark’s grandfather seemed to be adamant that red hair was a Skelton family feature. However, as Mark himself points out, this could have come from any side of the family, if it indeed was an inherited feature at all. But the only relative that our two families have in common is Mary Ann Hawkins, so any particular shared trait would have had to have been passed on from her. My grandfather did have a brother James (who died in WW1) who was nicknamed Ginger on account of the colour of his hair, but to believe that there was a genetic connection involved does sound more like an instance of wishful thinking. As indeed does the other family trait that Jim Skelton seemed to have inherited: namely that of an ‘unpredictable’ nature.

In 1960, after working in the Southwark-based Warehouse Department of Fleetway Publishing for four decades, James Henry Skelton was finally made Warehouse Manager, an event that was recorded in their in-house staff magazine. Mark sent me a copy of the article, which also includes a photograph of the fifty-four year old Jim Skelton (who started at the firm as a fourteen-year old sweeping-up boy when his father, James Frederick, worked there as a porter after the war). The text states: As a fiery auburn-haired boy at Lavington Street back in 1920 under his father’s watchful eye he experienced much of the rough and heavy days that were then part and parcel of healthy circulations. The article then goes on to say that: From those encounters, perhaps, he developed the art of creating a practical joke while maintaining a poker face. Later it is rather cryptically pointed out that: While much of the impetuous fire may have been calmed by maturity, and ‘storms’ now subsided in teacups, the very nature of his varied tasks in a department becoming more technical than ever before must inevitably find Jim Skelton being accepted by different groups in different ways. Hence he may continue to be a controversial figure: which may turn out to be far more interesting than putting him in a definite category.

jim-skeltonThe accompanying picture shows Mr. J. H. Skelton squinting at the camera in a way reminiscent of my father, my grandfather and his brother Arthur, and also their father, Arthur snr (William Hawkins Skelton’s half-brother). So did those deep-set drooping eyes actually come from the Hawkins family? And if so, can they really be claimed as a ‘Skelton trait’? Perhaps more interesting are the hints that Jim had a ‘fiery’ personality – something that could be said of my grandfather and his brother Arthur and some of their descendants!

When I started my research in 1984, Jim Skelton was still very much alive, and possibly enjoying a full retirement, pursuing his love of gardening, collecting wood, literature and classical music (all hobbies he was doing in 1960). Frustratingly, had I then all the information currently at my disposal, it might have been possible to ask him about his shadowy grandfather. (Did you ever meet him? would have been my first question). But perhaps this would not have yielded up as much information as I like to imagine. I have previously managed to make contact with the surviving grandchildren of other Hawkins-Skelton offspring and disappointingly it is often impossible to get beyond a tantalising Yes, I remember the old man or The families lost touch after the war, and it feels impolite to keep pressing an elderly stranger who may become distressed at bringing up the past.

Yet I still nurture this wild hope that some distant relative out there has a box in their attic which, while not necessarily a receptacle for skeletons, might be hiding a bundle of letters and some photograph albums, or even a diary or two. When I hear about other such genealogical finds, I feel myself twitching with envy, and wondering whether this holy grail of family history might ever be mine – or whether I am doomed to be like the gold panners whose finds of a few shiny flakes encourage them to persevere in their quest, ever hopeful of discovering a nugget.

But perhaps it is the very conscious act of putting flesh on the bones of such a meagre skeleton that forces me to reach out beyond my own family history to seek out parallels and stories from the wider world. And so it is that I have come to believe that it is the existence  of  Blackfriars Bridge which, by linking the two riverside parishes of St Ann’s and Christ Church, united the Hawkins with the Skelton Family, and which may also have accounted for William’s confusion in regard to the location of his birth parish.

My great-great grandmother, Mary Ann Hawkins, was born in the shadow of St. Paul’s, and spent her childhood in the dingy courts and alleys of the City parish of St Ann’s, Blackfriars (named after the site of the medieval Domenican riverside monastery of dark-clothed monks). This was a parish without a church after the building was burned down in the Great Fire in 1666, and was afterwards amalgamated with St Andrews-by-the-Wardrobe – even though it continued to keep separate parish records. And  more importantly for our story, it was considered the ‘home’ parish of the Hawkins, and the place where Mary Ann’s father, William Hawkins, unsuccessfully tried to obtain settlement relief, based on the fact that his father had undertaken a 7 year apprenticeship there.

blackfriars_1797

Old Blackfriars Bridge from Lambeth, c1800 (demolished 1864)

Although the Thames was a physical and psychological barrier for most Londoners, living in one of the few parishes with a crossing to the other shore must have made movement to the opposite side more convenient and tantalising. And when I look at the above image of the old bridge (whose elegant Portland stone arches are perhaps already beginning to crumble), I can imagine the young Mary Ann scurrying across from the Middlesex-side, holding on to her skirts and bonnet as the wind whips upstream, while the river below her seethes with life and noise. Like her contemporaries (including the fictional Mr. George), she would have considered it normal to walk the streets of the capital for miles and whether she first crossed to the Surrey-side for business or pleasure or simple curiosity, she certainly could never have imagined that over a century later hundreds of her descendants would have made their home in ‘London over the river’.

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2017

When I Grow Rich

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

My great-great grandmother, Mary Ann Hawkins, was born on 24th September 1830, exactly one month to the date before her young parents were married at St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch in London’s East End. The church, which was recently used for the filming of the award-winning BBC TV series, Rev, is the one refered to in the children’s nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons, and I often wonder if William Hawkins and Catherine Fitzgibbins thought of this as they stood at the altar that day. Were they hopeful of a prosperous life together, or did they already have intimations that their future would be a constant  struggle against poverty and destitution? Unsurprisingly, the teenage Catherine was unable to sign her own name, but she had at least one member of her family to witness her nuptials – her older brother, William Fitzgibbins, who was also born in Ireland. Could it be that the two of them had initially come to London  together to search for work, like many young Irish at the time?

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Shoreditch Church, c1839

In the autumn of 1830, the future husband of Catherine and William Hawkins’ newborn infant, Mary Ann, was already a father of three, with another child on the way. Married to Sarah (née Vaughan), a respectable two years younger than he was, James Skelton probably never imagined that twenty years hence he would end up starting a second family with a woman who was the same age as his daughters. I do, however, feel quite proud (for want of a better word) of the way James stayed with Mary Ann, helping her to ‘grow rich’ by offering her and their children – plus her son from another relationship – a steady home, and eventually going on to make everything legal between them shortly before his death from severe bronchitis in 1867, just after turning 68.

Of course, however biased I might be, I don’t believe for one minute that my great-great grandfather was a saint in matters of the heart (and loins). The late marriage and the different addresses for the birth of the children – plus the empty ‘father’ space on two of the children’s birth certificates, later proven to be James’ – does seem as if he was initially evading some of his responsibility. At the same time, I believe he was probably under enormous pressure, at least in the beginning, to hide the relationship from his four remaining children, in particular his son, James William, the social climber whose own children were educated at Eton and Oxford and later hobnobbed with minor aristocracy.

But what I respect above all about my great-great grandfather is the integrity the older and financially stable James showed in his relationship with his young mistress: he was fully aware of his commitment to her and their shared brood and honoured that, despite the opportunities he possibly had to walk away. Indeed, I often wonder, given her background, whether Mary Ann Hawkins could have actually been a local prostitute whom James visited on a regular basis, before the birth of their first child brought them into a closer relationship. It was not uncommon at that time for impoverished young women to set themselves up privately in this line of business, and some even went on to establish a home with a regular client, particularly if she became the mother of his children.

Another piece of information which may add weight to this argument is the fact that on the Skelton-Hawkins children’s birth certificates Mary Ann’s profession was usually described as a ‘needlewoman’ – a job that would have brought in meagre earnings. Around about the time she met James in 1850/51, it looked as if she was living in lodgings in the insalubrious Waterloo Road district with two other young ‘needlewomen’, which might indicate that they (also) worked together as prostitutes, taking clients to their shared rooms. On the other hand, Mary Ann may have simply been doing piece work at home for James or another local tailor, and was introduced to her future husband in this manner. There is, unfortunately, no way of discovering how they actually did meet, and if I had a time machine which could only be deployed once, that is probably the very occasion in which I’d chose to use it.

As the daughter of a mother who sewed (those homemade kilts spring to mind again), and whose own mother had been a professional dressmaker in the 1920s, I am well aware of the skill involved in needlework, particularly before the age of fancy sewing machines and other relatively modern inventions, such as the zipper. And yet my Scottish grandmother was never as proud of her profession as I thought she should have been, even having to give it up when she married, in case it would reflect badly on my grandfather’s ability to provide for her. When I was old enough to appreciate the beautiful and intricate work she could do (both by hand and treadle-wheel machine) I elevated her in my young mind to the level of a fashion designer. But as my mother explained, dressmaking was a relatively common apprenticeship for young woman at that time, and the skills that my grandmother possessed would once not have been seen as out of the ordinary.

When I was slightly older my mother also told me that the term ‘dressmaker’ was once sometimes regarded as a euphemism for a prostitute. At the time I was rather shocked – I could not see the connection between the two roles, and felt sad that my grandmother’s talents might be demeaned in some way by this, particularly as she was such a stickler for propriety. It was only once I learned about the dressmakers from previous generations – the Victorian seamstresses who worked long hours at home taking in routine sewing, for which they were paid a pittance – that I made the connection between the professions. The vast majority of the work which these needlewomen did was not specialist, and there was an increasing supply of other able bodies available should anyone complain about the pay or fall behind with orders. So it is little wonder that many younger women sought to find another way to boost their income, particularly if they also had a young child to feed.

But what was Mary Ann’s story, and how did she come to be in this position in the first place? It’s an interesting one, reflecting as it does the harsh realities of life in the mid-eighteenth century when food prices were extremely high in relation to incomes (social historians estimate around 60% of a family’s income would have been spent on food at this time), and an economic recession had led to high unemployment, giving rise to the description of the decade as ‘the hungry forties’. The repeal of the unpopular Corn Laws in 1846 helped to mitigate the situation slightly, but the truth was that most poor families relied on bread, butter and dripping and other off-cuts of meat for their sustenance, with many not even having the wherewithal to prepare hot food in their lodgings or in fact even the utensils needed for cooking and eating. In such a case, the only chance to obtain a decent meal would have been at the many street stalls or from itinerant sellers, offering everything from hot pies, baked potatoes and pease soup to jellied eels and sheep’s trotters. Anyone who has been following the recent BBC2 series The Victorian Slum can attest to how unappetising to modern tastes some of these latter items appear to be!

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Baked Potato Seller c1850

Mary Ann’s Irish mother, Catherine Fitzgibbins, was fifteen when she married the twenty-year old labourer William Hawkins in 1830, having already given birth to their first child (Mary Ann) the previous month. Although the couple married in Shoreditch, they spent most of the time living in the dingy streets and courts around St Paul’s cathedral, their address changing as regularly as some of my other ‘struggling’ ancestors later in the century, most notably my great-grandfather, Arthur Skelton (Catherine and William Hawkins’ grandson).

p1050549-2Hawkins Family ‘stamping ground’ in the St Paul’s Conservation Area today

P1050540 (2).JPGCrane Court (off Fleet St) today,  where the Hawkins lived in 1837

By 1850 Catherine and William had a family of six, most of whom were girls with names that would not sound out of place in the 21st century: Catherine, Sarah, Sophia, Emma. And in the middle of these sisters there was a boy, unsurprisingly named William. To me the name Mary Ann, while certainly not as timeless and elegant as that of her younger sisters, is one which sounds pleasant enough. However, my mother is of the opinion it was a rather common name in Victorian England (in both the literal and pejorative sense) and to her it always conjures up a street-wise, smart-talking ‘Cockney gel’ – the kind who was adept at using her charms and guile to escape the life of poverty into which she’d been born.

We know for a fact that the family were extremely poor because around the time that Mary Ann gave birth to her first son William (see Black Sheep and Blackfriars) her parents and younger sisters ended up as inmates of that most dreaded of Victorian institutions – the workhouse. Sadly, for most of the 1850s the Hawkins were in and out of the City of London Union workhouses. The only family members who escaped this fate were the three older children: Mary Ann, Catherine and William. While Mary Ann found her own escape from destitution, her sister followed another path – that of life ‘in service’. In the 1851 census the seventeen-year-old Catherine was working as a domestic servant to an elderly widow and her unmarried daughter living in Fleur-de-lys court, off Fleet Street. Their brother, thirteen-year-old William Hawkins, may have been in lodgings in nearby Cock Lane with several other young men, and working as a ‘reading boy’ – someone who reads out proofs to a publisher. If this is ‘our William’ it would point to the fact that he had at least picked up the ability to read along the way, but as a male child living in the City of London he stood a better chance of receiving some sort of charitable education than his sisters, or those who lived outside of the mercantile centre.

cock_lane_ghostCock Lane c1850 – site of the famous Cock Lane ‘Ghost’

As it turned out, William’s two younger sisters did gain an education of sorts: at the ‘Pauper School’ attached to City of London Union workhouse. I sometimes wonder if it was Mary Ann’s mother’s final pregnancy which precipitated the family’s decision to enter the workhouse, where the youngest daughter, Emma, was born in 1850. Those who are familiar with the history of this Victorian institution will know that this was a fate most people tried to avoid. Not only would families be separated – as happened to the Hawkins – even though they usually had to register together in order to gain entry, but the conditions were so grim that it was viewed by the majority of the population as a ‘last resort’. The workhouse was (as the instigators of the 1834 New Poor Law had planned) a deterrent for all but the destitute, forcing able-bodied inmates into hours of drudgery in return for the most basic of living conditions. Thus it is little wonder that many impoverished women would have regarded prostitution as the only alternative.

workhouse-2The City of London Union Workhouse at Bow c1849

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The Bow Workhouse being repaired after a fire in 1935

When the pregnant Catherine Hawkins and her daughters were admitted to the Mile End Workhouse, William Hawkins (who had previously worked casually as both a labourer and a porter) was sent instead to the nearby Bow Workhouse. This had been erected in 1849 by the City of London Union – an amalgamation of 98 individual parishes, which had previously offered mostly outdoor relief (as many parishes were too small to have their own workhouse). Although the building looks rather palatial, the vast majority of union workhouses were much more architecturally severe and functional in style, replacing the ad hoc arrangement which had existed previously, with individual parishes utilising anything from old farm buildings to empty country houses, as well as purpose-built structures.

The historian Norman Longmate describes this post-1834 building boom in his book The Workhouse (1974) thus: Any traveller riding down the dusty lanes of Southern England between 1835 and 1840, or rattling in the mail coach along the fine new turnpike roads, could not have failed to notice the vast new buildings which seemed to be springing up everywhere. In market towns they dwarfed the surrounding shops and cottages; in the depths of the countryside they stood gauntly in hitherto untilled fields or on desolate stretches of waste land. Usually they consisted of a bleak, two-storey block, built around a courtyard, with vegetable gardens lying behind it. At the front there was a narrow gate, guarded by a porter’s lodge, with a large bell hanging above it, and the premises were invariably surrounded by a high wall.

There was, however, one positive aspect of the controversial New Poor Law for the Hawkins family. And that was the fact that instead of the whole family being incarcerated in the workhouse – a place primarily designed for adults – the law gave provision for the children of workhouse inmates to be given a basic education and trained in the type of jobs that would make them employable. For girls this usually meant as domestic servants, while boys would be equipped with the skills for a life at sea, or learn trades such as tailoring and shoemaking, which would help them to obtain apprenticeships. The Norwood School of Industry at Westow Hill, which prior to the New Poor Law had been run privately as a pauper school for London children by Frederick George Aubin and his wife (for which they recieved 4 shillings and sixpence per child), was the place which was chosen to be one of the workhouse schools for the City of London Union. Not only did it have a relatively good reputation, but it was several miles away from the morally and physically polluting influences of the capital.

The school had been set up earlier in the century in order to ease the plight of the destitute children who had been ‘farmed out’ by the City parishes as infants to the cottage homes of some of the poor and old residents of the parish (who needed the financial relief this opportunity gave them). Such a system was obviously open to abuse, and entry to the school at seven would have improved many of the children’s situation, despite the fact that initially there were no recreational activities on offer and the inmates were mainly expected to carry out menial tasks, such as sorting bristles for brushes. In addition, when pupils eventually did leave the care of the school it was often only to end up in the hands of unscrupulous employers who wanted the premium they were granted for taking on such a child.

However, after the New Poor Law came into effect the school was inspected several time (there had been a large number of infant deaths from cholera earlier in the decade) before commissioners were satisfied that enough improvements in education and sanitation had been made to issue an annual grant to allow the school to expand its facilities and employ more teachers (selected in Scotland), alongside skilled handicraftsmen for the workshops. By 1840 conditions seemed to have improved, and a visitor in the summer of that year writing in the Chambers Edinburgh Journal remarked that: Mr Aubin being a benevolent man, willing to engraft any improvement in his system, the routine of the estate was revised and remodelled a few years ago; on the recommendation of Dr. Kay, Poor Law Commissioner for the London district. It now serves as a pattern for the organisation of workhouse schools throughout the country. The great object held in view is to fit the children to engage with alacrity and ease in any species of useful employment to which they may be put on leaving school.

By the time the Hawkins children arrived at the Norwood School in 1849, it had been under the jurisdiction of the Poor Law Commissioners for several years. In the Second Annual Report of the Poor Law Board in 1836, Aubin had already mentioned the problem that these peripatetic workhouse children could cause (previously most children had entered the institution at a young age and remained there several years). He described how these new inmates were now often older and more likely to cause ‘trouble’ at the school, particularly as they only stayed for as long as their parents were in the workhouse, often leaving the school only to re-enter several months later . Records show that this was exactly the pattern the Hawkins sisters followed throughout the 1850s, until in 1858/59 Catherine and her two younger daughters (Sarah having no doubt found work as a domestic servant by then) entered the Christchurch Workhouse in Mint St, Southwark. This was a place which the medical journel, the Lancet, would soon condemn for its appalling conditions, including disease-ridden wards and lack of sanitation, just one of many cases reported which helped to change the law to force workhouses to create separate infirmaries (many of which eventually became NHS hospitals in the 20th century).

new-poor-law_posterContemporary Poster criticising the New Poor Law c1834.

Around this time, the Norwood School moved to new premises in the countryside at Hanwell, while the original buildings  were demolished and the land sold for development. The arrival of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in 1851 had changed the nature of the neighbourhood and created a demand for suburban housing, which was soon to be followed by the railway. And it was to this area that my grandparents would move with their young family in the 1930s, my grandfather having spent part of his boyhood in the area  during the period when his father, Arthur  (Mary Ann’s son), was dragging his family all over south London in search of work and cheaper rents.

kristallpalast_sydenham_1851_aussenArrival of the Crystal Palace  at Sydenham in 1851

In a curious side note, it was at this very same Union School in Hanwell where Charlie Chaplin and his brother were educated in the 1890s while their mother was an inmate of the Newington workhouse. In his autobiography, Chaplin recalls that his mother went to the bother of extricating herself from the workhouse in order to retrieve her sons, and spend the day with them at Kennington Park (a place with a connection to my own family, see  A Tale of Two Parks). At the end of this halcyon few hours, the family had to face the degrading process of admitting themselves to the workhouse all over again. This was not an uncommon event, as families attempted to meet up with each other, however briefly, or survive outside the workhouse for longer periods. But it could be extremely difficult for ex-workhouse inmates to re-establish themselves in the community, and before long the family would often have to be re-admitted – as was the case with the Hawkins.

However, in 1850, when Sarah and Sophia, aged thirteen and five respectively, were at the Norwood Industrial School, a very special visitor came to visit the institution: namely the writer Charles Dickens. In an article in Household Words (the weekly magazine he edited) entitled London Pauper Children, Dickens describes the school buildings as being as dingy and ugly as a small brewhouse. However, it is his  in-depth description of the children and their education that forms the bulk of the article, and which is particularly fascinating to me in light of the fact that he may have briefly seen Sophia or Sarah in the course of his exploration of the school. 

Dickens  describes the pupils as follows: The children, on their first appearance at this Norwood School, are usually in the most lamentable plight. Ignorance and dirt, rags and vermin, laziness and ill health, diseased scalps, and skins tortured by itch, are there characteristics. They are the very dregs of the population of the largest city in the world – the human waifs and strays of the modern Babylon; the children of poverty, and misery, and crime; in very many cases labouring under physical defects, such as bad sight or hearing; almost always stunted in their growth, and bearing the stamp of ugliness and suffering on their features.

And if this was not bad enough, he goes on to say: Generally born in back alleys and dark courts, their playground has been the streets, where the wits of many have been prematurely sharpened at the expense of any morals they might have. With minds and bodies destitute of proper nutriment, they are caught, as it were, by the parish officers, like half-wild creatures, roaming poverty-stricken amidst the wealth of our greatest city; and half-starved in a land where the law says no one shall be destitute of food and shelter. When their lucky fate send them to Norwood, they are generally little personifications of genuine poverty – compounds, as someone says, of ignorance, gin, and sprats.

His article goes to great lengths to praise the Norwood institution – in particular the education of the boys, who not only had books and learnt proper trades, but also had military-style parades, and naval exercises on board a replica ship (made by a Greenwich pensioner). Unfortunately for us, he does not expend so many words on the girls’ education, except to say that they had less book-learning and were taught houshold occupations the rest of the time. Although he points out that the majority of the pupils’ parents were inmates of the workhouse, Dickens mentions that there  were also a few foundlings at the school, giving us the examples of little Olive Jewry and Alfred City. In the 1851 census schedule (which lists Sophia and Emma Hawkins), the very same Olive Jewry (age 3) can be seen,  as well as a boy called James Park – sad reminders of how  desperate their poverty-stricken mothers must have been to have abandoned them so.

It is not clear what befell the Hawkins children in later years, nor indeed exactly what happened to their parents, although all evidence to date seems to point to the fact that William and Catherine finally separated. Catherine Hawkins appeared to live out the last decades of her life working as a cook/housekeeper for a group of Irish clergymen; firstly at St Patrick’s RC Church in Soho Square, then following the missionary, Father Francis Cotter Beckley, to the new St Patrick’s Church in Wapping (built to serve the Irish dockers and their families). It was at this clergy house where she died, in 1894, at the magnificant age of 80. Perhaps later in life, like many of us, she felt the pull of her roots and wanted to embrace the religion she’d left behind when she married her English husband. Sadly, it would appear as if her older brother William – who had made a living a a coal whipper – had died decades earlier at the age of 36, leaving a wife and five children. At least his English-born family would not have suffered the ignomy of being repatriated to Ireland if they had attempted to seek parish relief after his death, a fate which befell many Irish nationals at the time.

If this is indeed our Catherine Hawkins (and there is no reason to assume otherwise),  then she would surely have known the life trajectory of Mary Ann –  the daughter who escaped the degredations of the workhouse, despite her difficult start in life. She would also most likely have known her Hawkins-Skelton grandchildren – and even their children. It certainly would be fitting to think that she was able to share in her oldest daughter’s good fortune in marrying James Skelton – the man who helped Mary Ann ‘to grow rich’ by giving her the emotional and financial security to keep all her  children safely together, under one roof, a privilege which Catherine had been denied.

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2016