Category Archives: South London

Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier

The children of the street are equally different from one another in character and appearance, and are often startlingly good-looking. They have shrill voices, clumsy clothes, the look of being small for their age, and they are liable to be comfortably dirty, but there the characteristics they have in common cease. They may be wonderfully fair, with delicate skins and pale hair; they may have red hair with snub-nosed, freckled faces; or they may be dark and intense, with long, thick eyelashes and slender, lithe bodies. Some are apathetic, some are restless. They are often intelligent; but while some are able to bring their intelligence to bear on their daily life, others seem quite unable to do so. They are abnormally noisy. Had they been well housed, well fed, well clothed and well tended, from birth, what kind of raw material would they have shown themselves to be?

Maud Pember Reeves, Round About a Pound a Week, (1913)

GRANDAD SMy paternal grandfather, Sidney Skelton, c1908

As November marks the centenary of the end of the First World War and the signing of the Armistice, I have decided to devote this month’s post to the early life of my English grandfather, Sidney Skelton, who fought in France and Flanders during the Great War. Sidney was always referred to in our family as ‘Grandad Skelton’, whereas our younger Scottish grandfather (whom we saw more regularly by dint of basic geography) was simply called ‘Grandad’. As a child, this difference in appellation used to worry me – I always thought that my English grandparents would feel that they had been relegated to second-best. Thus I hope by writing this post I can make amends for the fact that I never really knew my English grandfather well enough to learn to love him.

As a working-class Londoner who was born at the tail end of the Victorian period, not only did Sidney experience two world wars – firstly as a soldier, then as a working civilian –  but also the resulting social changes which swept through the 20th century.  I have written about my grandfather before (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers), and those who have followed my genealogical quest from the beginning may recall that he has cropped up at various points throughout my story, most notably in connection with his father and oldest brother, both of whom were named Arthur (see The Two Arthurs). Arthur Senior’s  mustachioed face can be seen in my grandparent’s wedding photograph in the banner image above, looking like a leftover from another era. Known as ‘Grandad Arthur’, his jolly-looking countenance belied the harsh life he had led – when this photograph was taken he’d already lost two wives and had endured periods of great poverty that would seem Dickensian today.

Perhaps Sidney had not expected his father to still be around for his wedding day in the autumn of 1924, when he himself was already a relatively mature man (for those days) of thirty-two. Perhaps he’d not even expected to have survived to that age – he had spent many years as a professional soldier, serving in the Great War, and had suffered the loss of an older brother and step-brother in the conflict. For my grandfather, the marriage must have been a bittersweet moment as his thoughts turned to those of his family who could not be there, including his own mother who had died when he was just three, and his step-mother whom he’d lost the year previously.

P1060932 (2)Sidney and Edith on their wedding day, 25th October, 1924

Despite his unease in his borrowed wedding suit (it surely couldn’t have been made for him), he does appear to look vaguely triumphant in his wedding photograph. Perhaps this is not as much in evidence as in the portrait taken to mark his official entry into the 19th Royal Hussars – after all, by 1924 he was no longer an innocent young man who was excited by the prospect a life of adventure, having finally experienced what real war meant. However, on that mild October day, when he married the daughter of his Brixton landlady, he was surely a contented man. His new bride, twenty-six year old Edith Matilda Stops (a name I’m ashamed to say I found ridiculously old-fashioned as a child), was an outgoing young woman who’d started work as a telephonist towards the end of the war, while no doubt still helping her widowed mother out around the house. As both her older brothers had served in the war, she was no stranger to the emotional impact of the conflict, something which was perhaps a comfort to my grandfather.

Whenever I think about my grandparents, it seems hard to reconcile their older selves with the young couple in the photograph above. By the time I came along, Grandma Skelton was already a dumpy women with thick grey hair tied back in a bun (strands of which still kept slipping out) and long, yellow teeth. She had a strange line in pork-pie hats and shiny dresses, and walked in her ugly lace-up shoes with a peculiar flat-footed gait. But I can also remember her lively dark eyes and olive complexion, her easy smile and wonderful cackling laugh. As I child I sensed that she was a happy person, despite the hardships I later discovered she’d endured. In contrast, my grandfather was thin and wiry with pale gnarled limbs and a sunken face, and always seemed to be on the verge of a bad mood. He was also rarely without a hand-rolled cigarette drooping from a corner of his mouth, which was slightly off-putting for the children of non-smokers. So we turned to our plumpish grandmother for hugs instead.

P1040821 (2)With Grandad Skelton, Christmas 1967

Thus poor Grandad suffered by comparison to his easy-going wife. It was a while after his death before I realised how varied his talents were – for woodworking, knitting, growing fruit and vegetables, and anything else he put his mind to. He was the sharp ‘brains’ of the family, but also the most tortured of all my grandparents. As my father inherited many of his characteristics (both good and bad), I know it is too simplistic to blame his experiences on the Western Front for his grumpiness in later life. But it breaks my heart to think that such a talented man ended up spending more than half his working life as a tram (and later, bus) conductor. This is not to denigrate such a job – he’d been delighted to be given such an opportunity in the lean years after the war – it is more that I believe he was the type of young man who would have greatly benefited from a recognised apprenticeship (as my Scottish grandfather did). However, his father was not in any position to support him in such a way.

When Sidney Skelton was born in Lambeth on 12th February 1892, Grandad Arthur and his first wife, Elisabeth (neé Holton), were living in rented rooms at 78, Cator street, near the Surrey Canal. A year later, when Sidney was baptised at the brand new church of All Saints, North Peckham (since dismantled), they had already moved to number 116, where they rented two unfurnished upstairs rooms from the live-in downstairs owner. This part of London was heavily bombed in WW2, resulting in a large area being turned into Burgess Park after the war (see A Tale of Two Parks), a process that took several decades to complete (and is still ongoing). Although these Cator Street houses no longer exist, the last remaining ones in the last remaining part of the street are now very much sought after residences. These period houses have a cottagey feel, yet it is also possible to imagine rows and rows of such identical multi-occupancy terraced houses, grimy in the soot-laden air, and understand why post-war planners were itching to eradicate them.

CATOR STREET (2).pngOriginal houses in Cator Street, Peckham, today

I have a strong feeling that Sidney’s mother was already ailing when she gave birth to him, her fifth child, that winter. Three years later she would be dead from cirrhosis of the liver, her new-born son, Frederick Edward, following her to the grave shortly afterwards. His malnourished rickety body was simply too weak to carry on without her. So little Sidney already had a rocky start in life, which possibly became even rockier when his father quickly remarried a widow with her own children, and the new patchwork family continued to move around south London, the youngest members being registered in different board schools every few months. Although Arthur was a shoemaker by trade, he’d never attained the level of master (as his own father had with his tailoring business), so led a more precarious existence as a journeyman, mending his customers’ shoes in whatever home the Skelton family happened to be living at the time. This would explain why my grandfather once told my aunt that he and his brothers had to walk long distances over south London in order to collect and deliver shoes for their father.

In the 1911 census, I was rather surprised to find that 52 year-old Grandad Arthur was found to be staying at Rowton House (at the Elephant and Castle), which was a fee-paying – albeit philanthropic – hostel for impoverished men. He was still married to his second wife, a widow named Harriet Pushman, but had possibly separated from her at this point (divorce being only for the wealthy). Unfortunately, after having been later used as a hotel and then a hostel, the old Rowton House building was demolished in 2007 after falling into disrepair, so I was unable to see it for myself. Yet, in 1897, when it was newly built, it was described as an impressive six-storey building, housing over 800 men, each of whom had their own small sleeping cubicle, open at the top. In addition, there were cooking facilities, opportunities to buy food and hot drinks, as well as communal living rooms, games rooms and libraries, alongside toilets and washing facilities. As one night cost around six old pence – although a room could also be booked on a weekly basis – the hostel was designed for ‘bona-fide working men’ who happened to be down on their luck. Residents who were tailors, shoemakers and barbers also offered their services, and I wonder whether Grandad Arthur was able to pick up some work while staying there.

ROWTON HOUSE (2)Rowton House, Newington Butts, c1900

By then, Arthur Skelton’s youngest son Sidney was already enlisted in the army and was most likely out of the country at that time (as he cannot be found on the 1911 census). Years later he told my father that before the Great War he had served overseas ‘somewhere hot’ (my mother thinks it was India, although it could have been in the Middle East) and there he had worn a special hat with a fold down part at the nape of the neck to protect against the sun – a style that is commonplace today due to increased concerns about UV radiation. However, in those days this issue was not people’s chief concern, and when my father was sent out to Africa with the air force in the early 1950s, my grandfather’s advised him to get out in the sun as much as possible right away, so he would quickly become acclimatised. As my father had inherited the olive skin tone of his mother, this was not a problem for him, and it seemed to me as a child that he was forever looking tanned and healthy. In fact, after years of living overseas, one of his major gripes about Scotland (and Britain as a whole – that damp dreary island in the North Atlantic) was the awful weather. So from an early age, I was picking up subliminal messages that life might be warmer and more exciting elsewhere.

My grandfather’s decision to join the British army was most likely financial. Prior to that, he had only been able to take short-term labouring jobs (as did his brothers), and years later told my parents about how he used to have to go down to the docks (possibly the Surrey Docks) to try to find daily work. As my mother once remarked, being small and wiry, Sidney might not have immediately stood out as one of the obvious men to employ for physically demanding work, and he often had to return home empty-handed. So signing up to the army gave working-class boys like Sidney a chance to have paid regular employment, to be housed, clothed and fed, and to be trained in various skills. My mother remembers how surprised she was to once come across Sidney knitting an intricate aran pullover as an old man, an unexpected benefit of being in the army.

It was only when I recently accessed the war diaries from Sidney’s regiment, the 19th Hussars, that I realised why the soldiers would have learnt such skills as knitting. Despite how I imagined life at the Western Front, it seems that in between the skirmishes there was a certain amount of time waiting and preparing for the next stage of warfare, so keeping busy would have been paramount. From 17th October 1915 (when Sidney arrived in Wardrecques, France, as part of one-hundred strong reinforcements) there are many entries which describe several days staying in billets (while waiting on commands), interspersed with trench digging, reconnoissance parties, transporting weapons etc.

In addition, soldiers constantly had to undertake bayonet and rifle drills, as well as keeping their horses fit and trained, and most unexpectedly, regularly playing football. In fact, while reading the diaries for 1916, I actually began to think that ‘playing football’ was a euphemism for some sort of military tactic. But of course, such ‘games’ would not only have improved physical skills, but also increased cohesion within the battalion and improved the soldiers’ morale. There were also descriptions of church visits, inspections, parades and horse shows (which the local population often came to watch), some of which had to be cancelled due to last-minute manoeuvres, and soldiers occasionally helped local farmers with harvests, in return for food and grazing.

74300666_3Horse show behind the lines (c) National Libraries of Scotland

The British army war diaries, which have only been available for the general public since 2014, can be read in situ at the National Archives in Kew, or can be ordered on-line for the price of a pint of beer. They are not always easy to decipher as some of the entries have been written (or scrawled) in pencil, and individual officers varied in how much information they recorded. Without prior military knowledge, it can also be challenging to follow many of the manoeuvres described, and the very matter-of-fact descriptions sometimes makes it difficult to work out when the important events are taking place. But to anyone wanting to know more about an ancestor’s movements during that period, they are certainly worthwhile reading, particularly if key battle dates are known. It is also relatively easy to plot the movements of troops if a detailed map of the area described can be accessed at the same time. Thus the diaries are an invaluable guide to visiting the battlefields, something I hope to do at some point in the future.

74300538_3British cavalry waiting for the order to move up (c) SNL

57_3British cavalry preparing to advance (c) SNL

And so it was that I found myself honing in on the 8th August 1918, when  I saw (with a horrible thrill) that for the first time in the diary the officer in charge had simply written Battle Front in the space designated for the name of the town or village in which the 19th Hussars were billeted. To follow the Battle of Amiens in ‘real time’ was an uncanny feeling, particularly in light of the fact that we know what those who were fighting cannot. I am able to read about the conflict, knowing that the war would soon come to an end and my grandfather would survive. Yet, how harrowing it must be for those who are following the hour-by-hour descriptions of a battle where their ancestors lost their lives.

74408646_3Cavalry patrols advancing over open countryside (c) SNL

74407759_3 (2)Cavalry passing Albert Cathedral, August 1918, Tom Aitken (c) SNL

Some of the notes taken during the battle were particularly descriptive. For example, at 7pm on the evening of the 8th of August, the officer in charge wrote: Enemy aeroplanes appeared in large numbers, as many as 20 or 30 being in the air above us at the same time, and commenced shooting at our horses, no damage. A few of our Scouts (S.E.5’s) were in among them, and we had the satisfaction of seeing one machine burst into flames at a height of about 1,500 feet, and fall rapidly down on the west side of the valley in which the horses were standing. The pilot jumped out and fell a little further looking like a little rag.

74407355_3British scouting planes (S.E.5s), France 1918, David McLellan (c) SNL

But perhaps the notes that enthralled me the most were those which captured the often petty-sounding (but obviously important for discipline and morale) issues of everyday life on the Western Front. Soldiers were admonished for smoking while on horseback, for shooting rabbits in the French countryside, for not changing their socks within a 24 hour period. And so the list of regulations and demeanours went on. Food was also an important topic for the troops; for example, on the 2nd of May, 1918, the reporting officer wrote the following: Information received that the peanut cake now being issued, is better boiled, this producing a less irritating and purging effect. Day passed quietly. I don’t think he realised the unintended humour of these two, possibly unrelated, statements!

74406582_3Cavalry soldiers relaxing, while their horses graze (c) SNL

A family anecdote relating to my grandfather’s time in the army which I have always found particularly fascinating is an event which took place on a cold winter’s morning when my grandfather was coming home on leave. As Sidney was walking through the suburban streets of south London in his cavalry uniform, there was a commotion when the local milkman’s horse slipped on the ice and fell over. Knowing that a fallen horse is in a difficult situation – especially on ice – and that it needs to be helped up onto its feet before it does any damage to itself, Sidney ran over to the horse and kneeled on its neck. This was presumably to prevent the animal struggling, and would have been second nature to him after his army training – as to lose a horse in wartime is obviously a grave concern. However, it would appear that the milkman was not best pleased to see this soldier diving onto his horse, and used some choice swearwords to show his disapproval.

img004Edwardian milkman, Norwood Dairies, South London

4f02678fe8e81fda7a561677109e2816--war-horses-climbingHorse falling down railway embankment, Western Front 1917-18,

Although everyone in the family seemed to find this tale quite funny, I have always thought it rather sad. I wonder if this is because it illustrates the different worlds that the two men inhabited. Sidney would have been proud of his equine skills and no doubt believed that his role in the army was for the greater good; the milkman may have felt that he was being shown up by this younger serviceman, and may have had conflicted emotions about not actively fighting in the war himself (despite the fact he may have been too old for service). For soldiers coming home on leave from the front, it must have been a strange, unsettling experience.

But perhaps it was even harder when the war was finally over.

74408227_3 (3)A cavalry patrol (c) SNL

To be continued next month in Portrait of my Grandfather as a Civilian.

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2018

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A Riverside Rest

South London is almost crippled by these monstrous growths, unrealized by the traveller tearing along in his daily train. Whole areas have been choked by overhead rail-tracks on these wasteful brick arches, and to get a true appreciation of the sort of thing that can happen, one should pay a visit to Loughborough junction, where three of these monsters meet, or to Southwark Cathedral, where the main line track seems to hold down an area of a small country town.

South London, Harry Williams, 1949

 aerial-view-01693-750London Bridge (with Southwark Cathedral) c1920 (c) Ideal Homes

It’s mid-September and I’m back in London again. I haven’t visited the capital for a year now, although it doesn’t feel like that. Perhaps because I’m surrounded with my research it often seems as if the city is coming to me through my books and papers. But of course that is no substitute for the real thing, so it was good last month to stride out along the South Bank towards Greenwich, with the first scent of early autumn in the air.

And just as the seasons are edging towards the end of the year, I sense my story drawing to its natural conclusion. I’m moving closer to the centre now – soon out of London (again) and up, up to North Yorkshire. But before I do that I would like to pause at the Thames for a while; catch my breath after all those recent excursions to the far ends of the Victorian Empire. To Australia, to Hong Kong, to Belize, and of course last month, by means of Charles Skelton Tyler’s delightful photographs, to Earls Colne in Essex.

I stop at the old watermen’s stairs at the bottom of Horsleydown Lane, the place where my ancestors would have crossed the river a whole lifetime before the iconic bridge would link the Surrey-side to the Middlesex-side at the Pool of London. And while it is clear to me that Tower Bridge is the odd man out – a fancy-pants of a crossing in amongst all the more functional ones – I still find it a struggle to imagine the great river as my great-great grandfather first saw it when he arrived in London from Yorkshire sometime around 1820. 

P1040281 (2)Horsleydown Old Stairs and foreshore today

Horsleydown Foreshore c1850

Horsleydown foreshore, c1850 (c) Guildhall Library & Art Gallery etc.

Not only would the Thames have been heaving with boats, including those of the watermen and lightermen, but none of the bridges which span the river today would have been there two hundred years ago – at least not in their current incarnations. At that time the crossings closest to Central London were limited to London Bridge, Old Blackfriars Bridge, and Waterloo Bridge, along with the lesser-known iron Queen Street Bridge (replaced by Southwark Bridge) and the iron Regent’s Bridge (soon after renamed Vauxhall Bridge). In fact, depending on when he actually arrived in the capital, James Skelton may have even been witness to the opening of these latter three toll bridges at Southwark (1819), Waterloo (1817), and Vauxhall (1816).

Although I cannot determine exactly when my great-great grandfather made that all-important move to London, I do know he was born in 1799 in Darlington and grew up in North Yorkshire. As a young man he obviously undertook an apprenticeship in tailoring, and by the time he was in his twenties had settled down in the riverside parish of St John’s Horsleydown, now in Bermondsey (see The Tailor of Horsleydown). London Bridge would therefore have been his closest crossing, had he needed to go to the City by road. And he would certainly have witnessed the ‘new’ London Bridge in the process of being constructed next to the old one in the 1820s, and not completed until 1831 when he was already a father of four young children (with another on the way).

Would my great-great grandfather have been excited at this idea of progress? Was it the opening of this improved bridge which helped him decide to move much farther out to leafy Brixton over a decade later, commuting to his new tailor’s shop in East Cheap, near St Paul’s? Or was it the coming of the railways in 1836, spreading out over South London throughout the 19th century, like a spider spinning a slow and stealthy web, which caused him to flee his adopted parish?

The_Construction_of_New_London_Bridge_alongside_the_old_bridge_by_Gideon_Yates,_1828.png‘New’ and Old London Bridge, by Gideon Yates, 1828

I have always been fascinated by the history of London’s first railway line, the London and Greenwich Railway, which opened in 1836 (but did not reach Greenwich until 1838) and ran on a viaduct consisting of 878 brick arches, due to the number of streets that it had to cross. Walking through Bermondsey today, it is hard to ignore this structure, which appears to dominate the neighbourhoods through which it passes. If you add in the noise and pollution the early locomotives would have generated – not to mention the carriages on the rudimentary rail system – it must have been a traumatic change to the area for the residents, particularly those in the more outer-lying parts that were still in open countryside.

Several months prior to the railway line’s opening, The Times of September 3rd, 1835 stated: This enormous mass of brickwork, of which the first stone was laid in last April twelvemonth, is advancing rapidly to its completion . . . It is expected that the railroad to Greenwich will be finished in the course of another twelvemonth, and that the passage of steam omnibuses, &c., will then commence; that they will carry passengers from London-bridge to Greenwich in 12 minutes, and that the charge of conveyance will be only 6d. Whether or not this rapidity of transport will be pleasurable or otherwise, must depend on the tastes of those who ride on the railway. It will no doubt be advantageous to the inhabitants of the metropolis to enjoy rural scenery at a cheap rate and without much loss of time.

London-and-greenwich-railway-1837London and Greenwich Railway, 1837 The Illustrated London News

Three years later, the new London and Croydon Railway opened, sharing the initial section of the line for two miles, the high-level pedestrian boulevards which ran alongside the tracks being utilised for this expansion. On Sundays (when trains did not run) these walkways had been a popular one-penny stroll, and perhaps my great-great grandfather and some of his family had dressed up in their smart Sunday best clothes to perambulate along them, wanting to see what all the fuss was about. I also think they would have taken an early train journey, even just to experience this novel form of transport, especially as the family remained in the area until 1844.

In those days of relatively low-rise buildings, the long railway viaduct would have been an impressive sight. A few days after The Times article in 1835, the Mechanics Magazine stated that: The London and Greenwich Railway viaduct is now fast approaching completion, and presents a very imposing appearance. It forms a highly interesting object from the summit of Nunhead Hill, at the back of Peckham, from which the whole range of arches, seen in nearly its entire length, appears like the “counterfeit presentment” of a Roman aqueduct. Nunhead Hill is decidedly the best point from which to obtain a general view of this magnificent work, which there forms a part of the foreground to an exquisite and comprehensive panorama of the metropolis, in its whole enormous length from Chelsea to Greenwich, with all its “domes and spires and pinnacles”, amongst which those of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s are of course the most conspicuous.

Several years later, Nunhead Hill would become the site of the new ‘monster’ cemetery of All Saints – one of the ‘magnificent seven’ that were constructed in a ring around the capital in an effort to prevent the overcrowding in the London parish churchyards, and intended as a Victorian capitalist venture (albeit an unsustainable one). Today Nunhead Cemetery makes for a pleasant wooded stroll, as well a place of historical interest. And eventually James Skelton was himself laid to rest here in the ‘new’ family grave, situated at the highest point of the hill, the closest spot both to God and the fabulous views of the London skyline.

nunhead-cemetery-00585-640Nunhead Cemetery c1850

When the burial site was initially chosen for his oldest daughter in 1844 (see Present at the Death), the vista of London with which the family would have been confronted was obviously very different from that of today. But St Paul’s would have still been the dominant feature. Somehow this feels very comforting to me, as the cathedral has come to symbolise my times in London. This is because I usually stay at the YHA hostel in the old choir boys’ accommodation in Carter Lane, and from every dorm room the bells can be heard chiming the hours throughout night. Despite what some of the guests say in the morning, for me it is nothing but a soothing sound which seems to be saying that all is right with the world.

FROM NUNHEADSt Paul’s Cathedral from Nunhead today

St Paul’s also symbolises family holidays in London as a child in the 1970s (all Londoners who have experienced the blitz seem to be forever drawn to this special place). I think, too, of my great-great grandfather, who eventually moved out of Bermondsey and set up his tailoring business just a stone’s throw away at 15 East Cheap; of my paternal great-great grandmother who was born in one of the slum courts in the shadow of the great cathedral. She would have grown up with the sound of the bells, while her future husband would have heard them as he travelled into the City each day. And if it hadn’t been for those two bodies lying cold under the earth up on Nunhead Hill (James Skelton’s oldest daughter and his first wife), this young poverty-stricken teenager would never have been able to set up home in South London with my fifty year old grieving great-great grandfather. Such is the way the world turns!

So I see and I feel connections as I walk the streets and parks of London. I feel privileged to know about my ancestors’ lives through technology they could never have imagined, yet despite this knowledge I’m aware that as I tread in their faded footsteps I can never truly recreate their world. Sometimes, however, the city allows me a brief glimpse of a timeless space. The smell of roasting chestnuts on a winter’s day; a windy bridge crossing in early spring, grit stinging my eyes, while the brown-grey waters of the Thames roil and churn below; ghost signs on a wall advertising an obsolete product that was once regarded as commonplace. And for a brief moment I feel my ancestors calling to me over the years.

On that Saturday when I sat on the steps at Horsleydown, watching two separate sets of wedding photographs taking place on the ‘beach’ below me, I thought about the bridges and the railway lines – which had marched on step-by-step alongside the speculative building ventures. And it was inevitable that one day it would all eventually reach sleepy Brixton, far away from the bustle of the river, where my great-great grandfather had moved in respectable middle age. (The new family home on Coldharbour Lane – near present-day Loughborough Junction – was constructed when the street was surrounded by trees and market gardens).

What would James Skelton make of his old riverside neighbourhood of now? There is the fancy-pants bridge on his doorstep, looking like it has been there for hundreds of years; yet the family home no longer exists, bombed along with Horsleydown parish church in some unimaginable future-past war from the sky. Even the Victorian warehouses which tourists come to view would be regarded as  modern interlopers, having replaced  the original timber ones from earlier in the century with which my great-great grandfather would have been familiar. And if he did venture down the old watermen’s stairs to the foreshore and gaze out across the river, would he regard the current City skyline as progess?

Then if he continued to follow the riverside path beyond London Bridge and the Shard, past the hemmed-in but spruced-up Southwark Cathedral – which he’d have known as a simple parish church, and to whose long-demolished grammar school he’d sent his only son, what would his impressions be? The industry has all gone, and the resulting space opened up to pedestrians in pure pursuit of pleasure, as it once was, centuries ago. No doubt he would marvel at the new-old Globe Theatre, looking like something transported from the past to the future, missing out all the generations in between.

He might then wonder who and what had shaped this strange modern London which perplexed him so.

TOWER BRIDGETower Bridge c1971 (Horsleydown is on the right) (c) Skelton family

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2018

Stanley Sleath – Man and Ship

For a week this stagnant state of things prevailed; and then, one morning, we were all interested to find another barque within a couple of miles of us. She was the Stanley Sleath of London, from ‘Frisco to London, one hundred and sixty days out. She was an iron vessel and I’ll never forget the sights she presented as she rolled her lower strakes out of the water.

Frank. T. Bullen, The Log of a Sea Waif (1899)

Grace_Harwar_SLV_AllanGreen19th C Barque, (c) Allan Green, Library of Victoria, Australia

This year I have already discussed the Sleath-Skelton family at length (see Artificial Limbs on Curious Plans), as well as describing the charmed life of Maude Beatrice Floersheim (née Sleath-Skelton) who married the literary barrister Cecil Floersheim (see The Fortunate Widow). Regular readers may also have become aware of another figure who is still on the sidelines of our story but about to loom large: Maude’s brother, the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath. Herbert’s biography is perhaps the most fascinating one of my genealogical quest, and I intend to feature his story before the year is out. Yet I feel no picture of the Sleath-Skelton children would be complete without first mentioning Maude and Herbert’s older brother, Stanley.

While both Maude and Herbert had more than a few column inches devoted to them in their lifetime, Stanley seems to have been content to stay firmly in the background, flitting throughout the stories of his more interesting brother and sister like an uninvited guest. As the sensible older sibling of the three, Stanley was the first child to be born in the Sleath-Skelton’s new home, Carlton House, in The Avenue at Gipsy Hill (now Dulwich Wood Avenue), in South London, on March 25th, 1869. And even though the house is no longer there, enough of the original villas remain in the street to give a flavour of the neighbourhood in its heydey, when the countryside village of Gipsy Hill was sought after by those who wanted the luxury of an escape from London but also proximity to the City and West End.

However, while the popularity of Gipsy Hill began to boom when the railway station opened in 1856 (part of the West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway built to bring visitors to the new Crystal Palace at Sydenham), it also resulted in less salubrious homes eventually being built: as the upper-middle classes desired more exclusivity they began to move out to other areas. Thus although many new roads were originally planned in the style of The Avenue – one of the first grand residential  streets in Gipsy Hill  – terraced housing for the new commuters eventually became a more popular alternative.

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upper-norwood-dulwich-wood-avenue-1898_42650Early 20thC views of The Avenue (including nearby Crystal Palace)

Like his younger brother and sister, Stanley was baptised at the newly built Christ Church* in Gipsy Hill by the Reverend Richard Allen – a man who drew huge crowds due to his preaching skills, and who ministered at the church for over thirty years. Stanley’s uncle (on his mother’s side) and next-door neighbour, John Green, appears to have been a Church Warden at this time, and it is documented that he presented the church with a new brass lectern. Incidentally, when Lambeth Borough Council established the new Bloomfield Estate on the site of Bloomfield Hall in the 1920s – where my Skelton grandparents lived from 1938-42 – it also then came under the jurisdiction of the parish, so no doubt my father had attended Christ Church at some point, too!

*This year the church celebrates 150 years of worship – no mean feat considering that much of it was rebuilt after WW2 bombing, and then a new building was erected alongside the original after a major fire in the 1980s. (The old Victorian tower is now private apartments).

gipsy hill

I imagine that as he grew older Stanley would have retained fond memories of his formative years in Gipsy Hill: the field of cows from French’s dairy right in front of the house (the ‘meadow’ is still there – minus the cows), trips to the nearby Crystal Palace, his cousins fieldas next-door neighbours and playmates, his older teenage half-sister from British Honduras now living with the family, perhaps spoiling him rotten. Then quite soon there was Herbert, later followed by Maude Beatrice. I can almost imagine this little triumvirate as a Margaret Cameron-style photograph (instead of a stilted studio portrait) sitting together on a bench in the garden, Stanley with his arms slung proprietorially around his younger siblings.

Sadly, there are no such images of the little Sleath-Skeltons, charming or otherwise, and we can only guess what these 1870s children would have looked like. But it is not hard to picture them playing exuberantly in the garden of Carlton House, perhaps even making a tunnel through the bushes to reach their next-door cousins more easily, free from the high Victorian mores to which their parents would have had to adhere. We know about the greenery from the rental agreements of both Carlton House and Homedale House, currently in the Southwark Archives, where it is clear that the large gardens had been planted with a number of trees and bushes which the residents were expected to maintain. Interestingly, both those neighbouring houses were offered at only the annual ‘peppercorn’ ground rent of £1 for 84 years, suggesting (as rental properties) that they may have been part of a wider business arrangement between the parties concerned. Advertisements for these houses in The Times from 1862 and 1879, describe them below as such:

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Homedale House appears to have become a private girls school by the turn of the century, and during World War 1 was used as an auxiliary hospital for the war-wounded from Lambeth Hospital. Unfortunately the building was destroyed (along with Carlton House) during the blitz, although most of the rest of the street remains intact to this day.

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s-l1600 (4)Homedale House as a School, and Auxiliary Hospital in WW1

In 1875, when Stanley was but six, his British-Honduran half-sister Arabella Louisa died at home from renal failure (see A Tale of Exploitation) and shortly afterwards, as described in a previous post, the family moved to a grand apartment at The Cedars in Clapham Common. Was this to rid themselves of the terrible memory of Arabella’s lingering death? In any case, Stanley was soon sent away to Cheam Preparatory School with his brother and male Green cousins (Sydney and Percy), and after that went on to Eton alongside his male relatives. His future as a member of the establishment was more or less secured by this move, but at what price his childhood? We have no way of knowing whether he was happy or not at the exclusive boarding school, although many biographies of that time have shed light on some of the rituals that would go on to scar alumni in later years.

What we do know is that, like his brother and sister, Stanley would eventually marry but have no children. So there are no living descendants who might be a repository for passed-on memories and anecdotes – and those tantalising family photographs that we can only imagine. In fact, the only one of the three Sleath-Skeltons to have any children of sorts was Herbert, who had a step-son and daughter through his marriage to the actress Minnie Ellis Jefferies, the ex-wife of the Hon. Frederick Graham Curzon-Howe (younger son of the 3rd Earl Howe). Only Herbert’s step-son (the actor George Curzon) went on to have a family of his own. The current Lord Curzon, Lord Howe, (Herbert’s step-grandson) sits in the House of Lords as a conservative peer, and I doubt very much whether he even knows that his (deceased) father once had a ‘colourful’ step-father!

However, one fact has come to light which, although not able to tell us more about Stanley, provides us with an interesting peek into the life of a successful Victorian merchant. For in 1873, James William Skelton applied to the Board of Trade to rename a ship after his son: the French ship Gaston which he had recently bought and newly registered at the Port of London was to be henceforth called Stanley Sleath. By this time, James William already had four children, but by naming the ship after his first born son he was perhaps also signalling that he regarded Stanley as the one who would later join him in his business ventures.

And so it came to pass that, in 1890, when Stanley was twenty-one, he officially became part of his father’s firm, Skelton and Schofield, which specialised in mahogany importing (see  A Tale of Exploitation). James William had founded the company several decades earlier with his boyhood friend, Thomas Schofield, the son of a Bermondsey custom’s official. Thomas had retired in 1888, leaving his son, George Arthur Vaughan Schofield, to take over his role. George – who was a good few years older than Stanley – had joined the firm in 1881 at the age of twenty-five, several years prior to his father’s retirement. Thus by the time Stanley was welcomed into the company, it was his father and George Schofield who were the senior partners.

The late 1890s must have been a difficult time for the Sleath-Skeltons. Although Maude Beatrice and Stanley married in 1896 and 1898, respectively, their mother Emma died on January 1st 1898 at the age of 57 from a serious bout of bronchitis which had resulted in heart failure. By then the family had moved to Kings Gardens on the seafront in Brighton (James William spending time at the Grosvenor Hotel while in London), and the two adult sons appeared to be living close by, with Stanley being listed as ‘present at the death’ on his mother’s death certificate. Two years later this role would fall to the unmarried Herbert when his seventy-three year old father succumbed to Chronic Bright’s Disease and Uremic poisoning – basically renal failure.

James William had officially retired only six months previous to his death – ill health had most likely forced the issue – and on January 1st 1900 Stanley and George Schofield were made the two senior partners, while still carrying on the business of Skelton and Schofield at 29, St Martins Lane, off Cannon Street in the City. However, by the early 20th century the craze for heavy, dark mahogany furniture was on the wane and in conjunction with the depletion of rainforest reserves, it would appear that the old business model was no longer such a viable option. Several years later, in 1906, Stanley officially left the company, to work as a stockbroker. In the 1901 census, Stanley and his wife, Annette Skirving, are recorded both as staying with the Floersheims in Kensington (they had married in 1898 at the nearby St Mary Abbotts in Kensington High Street) and at their home in Brighton. Stanley is recorded as a General Merchant in 1901, but a decade later he describes himself as simply ‘Stock Exchange’. Although George Vaughan Arthur Schofield kept the family business going for a further two decades, it appears that this was also through dealing with other Central American products, such as rubber.

Records seem to indicate that both Stanley and his old business partner began to suffer a decline in their fortunes throughout the Edwardian period – even though James William’s will shows that Stanley had inherited a large proportion of his father’s generous estate. But by 1911, Stanley and his wife Annette were listed as living in a small flat in Brighton with only one domestic, while Annette appears to be working as a dressmaker. Stanley and Annette had already been married 13 years then and no doubt realised they would remain childless, so perhaps his wife was simply looking for something to fill her hours while her husband was in London. However, James William’s will of 1900, made shortly before he died, mentions that his oldest son Stanley should receive ten thousand pounds less than his siblings due to the fact that he had recently had an advance loan of that amount. So was Stanley in debt through bad speculation or had he wanted this money to reinvigorate Skelton and Schofield once his father had finally handed over the reins?

One thing I did discover is that Stanley’s ex-business partner, George Arthur Vaughan Schofield, lost his life in rather suspicious circumstances when he fell under a tube train at Warren Street tube station in 1933 (he had been living at the Grafton Hotel in Tottenham Court Road with his adult daughter since being widowed in 1925). Although he did not die at the scene, he was taken to the nearby University College hospital where his injuries proved to be fatal – his spine and chest had been crushed.

This is a terrible way to end a life and despite the fact that there were no newspaper reports of the event or surviving documents, there had actually been a coroner’s inquest which declared the death to be ‘accidental’. (I later found out that many of the inquest records had been destroyed in order to create more space in the records office. One in every ten was kept – but in mathematical sequence, so not necessarily the most interesting ones. As the archivist at the London Metropolitan Archives pointed out, it was a short-sighted move).

i00004qgThe old Warren Street Station

George Schofield made out his will in 1926 when Skelton and Schofield was wound up and he was newly widowed, but by the time he died 8 years later he only had an estate of around £500 to give to his spinster daughter, Madeline. I often wonder if George had actually jumped into the path of the train himself for some reason (bankruptcy brought on by the Great Depression?), although of course by this time he was an elderly man and may have actually slipped or been inadvertently knocked off the crowded platform. It is strange to think that I also used this tube station most days when I worked at University College Hospital (another coincidence) in the virology lab in the mid-1980s (the first job I took after working as a probate genealogist), and I remember how much I disliked the crowded old-fashioned station with the stuffy, dusty air and the legions of mice running up and down the dark tracks.

When Stanley died in Brighton in 1948 of prostate cancer, he had also been widowed for a good few years. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a record of his wife’s death, and wonder whether she died overseas – not an uncommon event, as my family history can attest to. Annette Justine Skirving was the daughter of Colonel William Skirving and had been brought up on the Welsh-English border before her widowed mother moved to Brighton when Annette was a teenager. It was there that she began to act and no doubt met Stanley through his actor-manager brother, Herbert Sleath-Skelton, who started out treading the boards in the Sleath-Skelton’s new home town. Perhaps Stanley had also enjoyed acting in the days before his business concerns dominated his life.

However, I can’t help but think that when Stanley died alone and intestate in his house in Brighton in 1948 – his sister, the wealthy widow Maude Beatrice Floersheim never bothered to claim the sum of approximately £1,500 he left her (see The Fortunate Widow) – that his life had perhaps not quite worked out the way he had expected or wanted it to. Perhaps as the oldest son he felt the pressure of following in his father’s footsteps, despite the fact that he lived through a different economic mileu when the fruits of the Empire were beginning to shrivel up. I wonder, too, what he did with the portrait of myself as a boy that he inherited from his father, along with his watch and chain and pendants and pearl pin, (see Where there’s a Will . . . and the Sun). The painting of his father as a boy is possibly the only link he had to his paternal grandfather, James Skelton, and as he is the relative we both share, this is obviously of particular interest to me.

But I’d like to leave readers on a positive note with a glorious description of the ship that was named after the infant Stanley – the Stanley Sleath. The extract which follows below comes from The Log of a Sea-Waif by Frank. T. Bullen, an account of the author’s first four years at sea on merchant ships from 1869 to 1873. Published in 1899, one section describes how, while becalmed on the Atlantic, the author’s ship, the Harrowby, came across the Stanley Sleath, whose crew had run out of fresh water due to rats drowning in the water vat and poisoning their only supply. After giving the commander of the Stanley Sleath 200 gallons of water for the return journey to London, they received in return a huge sow, two gallons of rum and a case of sugar. As Bullen points out it was the best deal made by our old man for many a day. As it turns out, the rum was packed in lime-juice bottles and only the cabin-boy knew that the skipper was imbibing for the rest of the journey!

georges gastonThe George Gaston (the Stanley Sleath?) by Louis Gamain, 1866

For a week this stagnant state of things prevailed; and then, one morning, we were all interested to find another barque within a couple of miles of us. She was the Stanley Sleath of London, from ‘Frisco to London, one hundred and sixty days out. She was an iron vessel and I’ll never forget the sights she presented as she rolled her lower strakes out of the water. Great limpets, some three inches across, yard-long barnacles, and dank festoons of weeds clothed her below the water-line from stem to stern, and how she ever made any progress at all was a mystery. She smelled just like a reef at low water; and it looked as if the fish took her for something of that nature, for she was accompanied by a perfect host of them, of all shapes and sizes, so that she rolled as if in some huge aquarium. She certainly presented a splendid field for the study of marine natural history.

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2017

A Tale of Exploitation

The mahogany industry has been, unfortunately, a tale of exploitation. The ‘get rich quick’ policy was adopted by all concerned and many of these people left the country and took their profits with them. No attention was paid to either natural regeneration or replanting, and it is now possible to walk through large tracts of bush which were once full of mahogany and not see a single sizeable tree. Indeed, the only natural wealth of the colony has now been exhausted.

F.C. Darcel, A History of Agriculture in the Colony of British Honduras(1954)

10309484_1506641026218934_7329609308366106728_neeMahogany tree, British Honduras, early 20th century

Back in 1985, at the time I first learned that my great-great grandfather was a widower when he married his young ‘housekeeper’, Mary Ann Hawkins, I had very little interest in discovering more about his previous family – the one I now think of as ‘lost’. In those days genealogy was an extremely time-consuming and relatively expensive pastime, so early on I’d made the decision to only focus on my direct ancestors. I realise now what an incredibly short-sighted view this was: after all, if I wanted to find out more about the man who instigated the London branch of the family, what better way to start than learning about his youthful first marriage? Perhaps I would even also gain more insight into why he later chose to marry a woman who was younger than his own daughters.

When the Waugh documentary (Fathers and Sons) triggered my renewed interest in family history a quarter of a century later (see Begin Again), I straight away began my on-line search for a James Skelton in south London (who was born in North Yorkshire in 1799). When looking for London-based ancestors in the earlier part of the 19th century – before the population of the capital exploded – it is still relatively easy to find those who do not possess overly-common surnames, and thus it was not long before I located James and his family living at Horsleydown Lane in riverside Bermondsey, an experience I wrote about earlier in The Tailor of Horsleydown. This discovery felt like an important breakthrough in my research: finally I would discover more about the man who, like so many during the early 19th century, moved hundreds of miles from his rural home in an attempt to better himself and give his family the opportunities he himself had been denied.

And what I learnt through the subsequent investigations came as a surprise. These children of James’ first marriage appeared to have been markedly more successful than those of his second. (Unfortunately, it would not be until the 2nd half of the 20th century that most of the descendants of the latter group would find doors opening to them through changes in educational policies). And this ‘lost family’ were in fact much more documented than the second one which I belong to – in part due to the fact that they they spread out across the Empire, taking risks along the way (some which resulted in their untimely deaths) in their pursuit of new lives and opportunities in the colonies.

This first family  James had with Sarah Vaughan was predominantly female, except for their middle child. As to be expected, it is this son – sandwiched between two younger and older sisters – whose social and economic rise was the most dramatic. The only one of the children to be formally educated, James William Skelton was sent to the nearby St Saviours’ Grammar School, where he would have had the chance to make connections with other socially mobile boys. It may even have been here that James William met the Bermondsey-born Thomas Schofield, son of a local custom house official. These two men (and their sons) were to form a life-long bond that resulted in them establishing a successful mahogany import business together. It was one which flourished throughout the time of Victoria, when furniture made from this dark, tropical hardwood was very much in demand due to the size of the logs as well as the wood’s known resistance to expanding and splitting in the damp weather of the British Isles.

James William Skelton was a self-made man who encapsulated the spirit of the age, with his colonial business and urge to get ahead, and within a generation he would take his family into the fringes of the lesser aristocracy. Possibly he was carrying on the dream his own father had started when he left his Yorkshire village all those decades ago, but had been unable to ultimately fulfil when, after losing both his wife and oldest daughter in mid-life, he ended up living with the young Mary Ann in a cramped terraced house in Kennington, surrounded by the crowd of noisy, young children he’d helped to bring into the world – and whose existence no doubt embarrassed his oldest son. (But perhaps I am giving James William value judgements that he did not possess, and how can he defend his actions now that he is buried under a slab of pink granite at Nunhead Cemetery?)

Finding out about James William’s exotic and successful business was certainly an exhilirating moment, and one of the high points of my research to date (later dampened by thoughts of colonial exploitation and environmental degradation). From his entry in the school records of St Saviour’s, to his deathbed business transactions and elaborate will and testament, this high-flyer left  behind a paper trail which documented his achievements and those of his children in the kind of detail that I could previously only have dreamt of finding for my family. And I am still coming across clues to his lavish lifestyle today as new records go on-line or revisiting a previous search allows me to see details I originally overlooked.

The book of St Saviour’s school admission records, discovered cracked and musty in the archives of the Southwark History Centre, showed that James William joined the school in early January 1834, a few days after his seventh birthday, and was a pupil there for four years. This school was attached to the church of St Saviour’s (now Southwark Cathedral) but the building in use at the time of James William’s school days ceased to be in service by 1839 (and unfortunately no longer exists – the site is covered by one of the many Victorian railway arches which blight Southwark).

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North View of Queen Elizabeth’s Free Grammar School, St. Saviour’s, Southwark, 1815 From: Survey of London: Volume 22, Bankside (The Parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark), ed. Howard Roberts and Walter H Godfrey (London, 1950), p. 41. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol22/plate-41

 

However, when I started searching for James William, his schooldays were the last thing on my mind. Having not found him in either the 1851 or the 1861 census, I had almost presumed him dead until I found a James William Skelton living with his wife and children in some grandeur at a residence named Carlton House, The Avenue, Gipsy Hill, in 1871, and describing himself as a Retired West India Merchant. Fast forward ten years and the same James William (now strangely not retired) had moved the family into a luxury apartment in a new development at Clapham Common, gaining several more servants along the way.

At first I thought I’d made a mistake with this wealthy man. I had always imagined that James Skelton’s first-bon son might have followed him into tailoring, taking over the family business at some point, and going into wheeling and dealing overseas seemed a grand departure from the family line (James Skelton himself having descended from Yorkshire wool staplers – more about this in a subsequent post). It was only until I was able to scrutinise his marriage certificate that my suspicions were confirmed – this James William and my half-ancestor were one and the same person. And so began a frenzied search that lasted several months and which finally convinced me I had to commit this whole project to words, illustrating as it did the disparity between the two branches of the familiy and the different lives of the haves and have-nots of Victorian England and beyond.

During this manic period of research, I soon gleaned that the reason James William disppeared from the UK census for two decades in a row is that at some point in his youth he and his business partner, Thomas Schofield, went out to British Honduras (now Belize) and set themselves up in the nascent colony as mahogany merchants (the Schofields seem to have owned land in  Corazol in the northern part of the country), and naming the company Skelton and Schofield. So although James William was most likely moving back and forward between the two distinct worlds of London and the Caribbean during this time, he evades the census which captured his two younger sisters still unmarried and living at home with their father in 1851, and the one ten years later which saw James firmly ensconced in Aldred Rd with Mary Ann and five of their six children.

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Map of British Honduras (now Belize)

But what the census was not able to pick up, other records did. Trade directories show that James William (with Thomas Schofield) had offices in the City – moving location several times until the company settled in the Old Rectory in Martin’s Lane off Cannon Street (still standing today, on account of its connection with the church of St Martin’s Orgar). In addition to this, the business had an import office at East Wood Wharf in the West India Docks at the Isle of Dogs. Today the remains of these huge docks and their accompanying warehouses, first developed over 200 years ago,  can be seen at the Museum of London, Docklands.

fig96West India Docks, 1841: Mahogany Sheds in East Wood Wharf visible. From: ‘The West India Docks: Historical development’, in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, ed. Hermione Hobhouse (London, 1994), pp. 248-268. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp248-268

docklands-2Remaining Victorian Warehouses at the West India Docks
                                                                                                                                                 

James William pops up again and again in the pages of the London Gazette, buying and selling property, involved in business transactions, purchasing a huge clipper ship, (which he names after his first son) and finally bringing this son, Stanley Sleath-Skelton, into the business before eventually retiring to Brighton. The firm of Skelton and Schofield appear to have  offices in the most evocatively-named parts of the City: St Helen’s Place, Mincing Lane, Throgmorton Street, (before becoming esconsed at the Old Rectory in Martin’s Lane for several decades), some of these buildings which still survive today. His marriage and children’s births are recorded in the newspapers of the time, such as the Pall Mall Gazette and The Times. Maddeningly, there are no photographs of this Victorian success story – only the tantalising description of the Portrait of myself as a boy and  Portrait of myself as a man (presumed to be oil paintings) that he records in his meticulously detailed will, and which I have discussed previously in Where there’s a Will . . . and the Sun.

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The Old Rectory, Martin’s Lane, Cannon St, City of London

Then, when almost forty, James William does something that confirms in my mind that he was without a doubt a social climber. He shrewdly marries a wealthy young woman whose family own a very lucrative body parts shop in Fleet Street (more about this uncanny-sounding business next month) and double-barrels his name with hers, turning this stunted branch of the family (none of their three children had any issue of their own) into the Sleath-Skeltons. And not only that, but on his wedding certificate in 1866, a year before his father died, he decides not to describe him as a retired tailer (as all James’ other children do), but simply furnishes the registrar with one elusive, snobbish Victorian expression: Gentleman. Could it be that he was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of his new bride and her family? Somehow I cannot imagine him ever wanting his putative in-laws to know that his father was currently living with a much younger (and uneducated) woman in a scruffy terraced house in Kennington surrounded by a crowd of what my father used to affectionately refer to as ‘snotty-nosed brats’.

During her lifetime, Emma Sleath seemed to have been close to her older sister, Mary Caroline, who married a successful autioneer-banker called John Green. In the census of 1871 the two families with their young children were living next door to each other in Gipsy Hill, renting large detached houses set back from the road, replete with coach-houses for their vehicles and drivers. The row of grand houses, simply called The Avenue (later renamed Dulwich Wood Avenue) was built in 1859 on open country, not far from both the new Crystal Palace at Sydenham and Gipsy Hill railway station, and overlooked a field with a herd of cows which belonged to the local dairy. Today the road (or at least the section which survived WW2 bombing and post-war development) still maintains a semi-rural feel, and the houses are, of course, eye-wateringly expensive. Although Carlton House (where James William lived) and the Green family’s neighbouring Homedale House were unfortunately at the end of the street which was destroyed by bombing, the remaining section does give a flavour of what The Avenue was once like. Now these buildings and their surroundings are an anomaly in a relatively busy urban area, although the old dairy herd field in front of the houses has been preserved as urban parkland.

gh-house-2A typical Victorian Villa on Dulwich Wood Avenue

gh-field-2The old dairy herd field in front of Dulwich Wood Avenue

I visited Dulwich Wood Avenue on one of my marathon walks around London, trying to get a feel for how the various south London neighbourhoods of my ancestors connected together (something that maps cannot really convey). That Sunday I walked from Brixton (where my father and James Skelton both lived in separate centuries) through sylvan Dulwich and the old turnpike (which put me in mind of Totteridge – see A Rose in Holly Park), and eventually arriving at the disconcertingly busy Paxton roundabout. After wandering up Dulwich Wood Avenue, I crossed the park and walked up Gipsy Hill to Christ Church (opened in 1867) where the little Sleath-Skeltons were baptised (and whose brass lectern was gifted by John Green, while church warden from 1867-69). From that vantage point I marvelled at the sight of St Paul’s and the City in the distance – a view spectacular enough to rival the one from the hight point at Nunhead Cemetry where the ostentatious pink granite Skelton family grave (courtesy of James William) is located.

gipsy-hill-church-2Christ Church, Gipsy Hill, built 1867

gh-view-2Evening view of the City from Christ Church, Gipsy Hill

Later that day, as the unseasonably warm March sunshine gave way to a sudden cool evening, causing an exodus from the local parks onto public transport, it suddenly occured to me that not only were the exhausting walks I was undertaking perhaps the same routes that my ancestors had trodden as they spread outwards across south London from riverside Bermondsey, but that these roads were like genealogical ley lines across the capital. And there at Gipsy Hill, at that place where the Roma once lived in the Great North Wood, was evidence of these tracks meeting. On one side of Gipsy Hill were the remaining smart villas of Dulwich Wood Avenue – and on the other side, higher up, the houses of the newer Bloomfield Estate which my grandparents moved to in the 1930s, delighting at their modern  cottage-style council house with indoor toilet and electric lights. And not far from there was the Victorian terraced house at Romanny Road where my grandfather lived at the turn of the old century with his father and new stepmother and assorted siblings.

But if there was one place (node?) which seemed to pull all these elements together, it was the Crystal Palace. From my father’s lifelong recollections of the terible conflagration he observed from his upstairs bedroom window in Brixton, to the knowledge that a great many of my London ancestors, the poor and the wealthy, would have gone there at some point in their lives (either to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, or later to the park and buildings in Sydenham), the grounds and its last remaining statues seemed to me to be a symbol of the great social leveller. I later discovered that the Sleaths had won medals for their moving body parts at the Great Exhibition, so no doubt the young Emma and her family would have been a visitor in 1851, while as a young woman living in Gipsy Hill she may have attended concerts there or accompanied her children to the park, perhaps noting with disdain the growing number of amusements and fairs in the grounds that were encouraging greater numbers of working class visitors

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Ghostly reminders of the lost Crystal Palace in Crystal Palace Park

A different day of exploring south London took me to The Cedars at the north side of Clapham Common, which was the subsequent home of the Sleath-Skeltons. Having moved with their coachman and hs family (each apartment came with a mews flat – themselves now worth a pretty penny), the family also took some of their existing servants and acquired a footman – already becoming a dated concept in the 1880s. By this time the two Boys, Herbert and Stanley, had been sent away with their cousins, Sydney and Percy Sleath Green, to Cheam prep school to prepare them for Eton (which would no doubt prepare them for Oxford or Cambridge &Etc.) James William’s youngest child, his daughter Maude Beatrice (a marginally classier name than those of her brother and cousins – at least to modern ears), was educated at home, possibly with her cousin Daisy Winifred Green, who was like a sister to Maude right up until their deaths in the 1950s.

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p1060887-2The Cedars (and their mews) at Clapham Common, built in 1860

I intend to write about each of James William’s children (Stanley, Herbert and Maude) in separate chapters, as this dated-sounding troika led strange and colourful lives which, given their social status, were much documented in records and contemporary sources. However, in addition to these three children, there was also an  unknown teenager  who appeared on the 1871 Gipsy Hill census alongside baby Stanley and Herbert, but disappeared shortly afterwards. This turned out to be the Caribbean-born daughter of James William, who at some point must have been brought over to England from British Honduras, and had been given the rather aristocratic name of Louisa Arabella. Sadly, this young woman died at the family home at Gipsy Hill from the horrific-sounding Renal Anasarca (swelling of the body tissues due to renal failure)  at the age of twenty-one. It is heart-breaking to think that this young woman, who no doubt expected to have been initiated into London society, died at the age she would have been ‘coming out’ and taking her place in the world. But her memory lives on in the oral history of the descendants of the Sleath-Green family who today still talk about the rumour that there was exotic Caribbean blood in the family. As Daisy Winifred’s grand-daughter (more about this unexpected contact soon) wrote in an early email exchange with me: One thing that has always interested me is another bit of family lore, and that is that there may be a ‘local’ from the Caribbean in our ancestry, but I have found no trace.

In Deborah Cohen’s book Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day, Cohen devotes a chapter to describing the fate of the illegitimate children of British colonists with indigenous women – a not uncommon occurence. Although these children were  sometimes brought back to the ‘mother country’ and assimilated into the new family, many of them were packed off to lesser-known English boarding schools, often at a distance from the family home in order to avoid the obvious questions which might arise from their darker complexions. In the case of Louisa Arabella, she appears to have come to England once James William had set up home as a respectable married man, and it would be interesting to know how Emma Sleath dealt with the arrival of this older step-daughter in the family at the same time as she was having her own children. Unfortunately, the death certificate of this young woman is the only official record I currently have which documents her existence (discounting the 1871 census), yet I hope one day to be able to tell Louisa Arabella’s story in more detail. 

And what of Louisa Arabella’s birth country of British Honduras – now Belize, and an independent nation since 1981? Many people have heard of the country through  its growing reputation as a world-class scuba-diving destination,  popular with American tourists, (not least because of the prevalence of English.) In addition, eco-tourism is making an increasing impact on the economy, and although there is no longer a mahogany exporting industry to speak of, bananas, citrus fruit and sugar are some of the main crops  now grown. However, the mahogany tree is still an important symbol in the country: it is the official national tree and features on the country’s flag – along with the phrase Sub Umbra Floreo (under the shade I flourish). The Belizean national anthem (video link below) also includes the patriotic line No longer hewers of wood we shall be – a reference to the period between 1750 and 1950 when the back-breaking and dangerous work of felling and squaring the mahogany trees which grew deep and scattered in the rainforest was carried out (originally by slaves until this was outlawed in 1838) for the benefit of the colonists.

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As a postscript, I would like to add that after my initial excitement at learning about these wealthy and successful ancestors, I soon began to question my reaction to their life stories. Why did I somehow feel better about the Skelton family, knowing that there was at least one branch who left their mark on the world? And what did it say about myself and my motives for carrying out family research if I thrilled more about adventures in the Empire and the discoveries of  large houses and servants than I did to trips to local parks, and terraced houses and factory labourers?

These are all questions that I will attempt to answer in the next few months as I explore the privileged lives of the Sleath-Skeltons and their relatives. I will also delve deeper into their connection with the Schofields, culminating in a tale which ends with the mysterious death of Thomas Schofield’s son under a train at Warren Street underground station in 1933, shortly after Skelton and Schofield was finally dissolved.

I look forward to you continuing to follow my story in the coming months!

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2017

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.

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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! 

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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.

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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

The Story So Far

There will always be questions left unanswered and ‘missing’ ancestors to be found. Writing a family history therefore means accepting your research will never be finished and deciding to do it anyway.

Gil Blanchard, Writing Your Family History (2014)

At the start of a new year, I would like to reflect on what I have learnt so far from my ongoing quest to discover more about my ‘lost’ London ancestors, some of which may be of use to readers contemplating  a similar project. This January marks the start of my second full year of blogging – and my 17th post – tying in neatly with the number 2017. I’d also like to thank those of you who have been following my story over the past one and a half years. It has been wonderful to have you alongside me on the trip, and I look forward to a further year of research and writing. Over the next few months I intend to focus predominantly on the other, previously unknown, branch of the Skelton family, who by dint of their relative wealth and success left an exciting paper trail behind them as they moved throughout the Empire with the confidence of the age.

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Family history is not so much a series of linear, chronological events, as a set of interlinked themes across generations. It is impossible to work neatly backwards (or forwards) without having to move sideways, then zig-zag about in an ungainly fashion. Yet this can be a very liberating discovery as it removes the need to know everything about one group of ancestors before moving on to investigate the next. And the added advantage to writing in blog form is that it usually only needs some minor post-publication editing to change a piece of information that later turns out to be inaccurate in some way. Any interesting new discoveries can either be inserted into a previous post or developed into a completely new one.

Researching records is never a cut-and-dried process. There is a tendency to feel that once a particular area has been researched in the archives all the available information through one particular channel has been amassed. But thanks to my slapdash research methods, which mostly entail scribbling illegible notes in blunt pencil on the back of recycled paper, I have regularly found myself re-researching the same things at various points throughout the year. As well as the obvious fact that new records can appear through digitalisation and/or the lifting of access restrictions (or even due to missing a particular record first time around), this disorganised method often exposes me to different ways of looking at old information as my research skills improve. So I have ceased to worry about the fact that my haphazard approach to record keeping may not be the most efficient one, even if I am not exactly proud of my lax record-keeping skills.

Story-telling creates a coherent narrative. The very fact that every month I have to attempt to create something readable from a variety of different sources makes me see connections and patterns which might otherwise have remained hidden. And while I’m well aware that taking a different approach to a topic may result in the narrative moving in another direction, my monthly deadlines prevent me from obsessing too much about which one is the ‘correct’ way to tell the story – a procrastination device with which other writers may be familiar!

Expect the unexpected. I have found more twists and turns in my family history than in an Agatha Christie novel. From bigamy and madness, to unexplained deaths and unimagined riches (all coming up in 2017), I have been shocked and saddened and surprised at the events that have revealed themselves to me. When I first started my research in the 1980s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born), I had naively expected to find what I imagined to be a straightforward history of an ordinary working-class London family, and even learning that the Skeltons had originated from North Yorkshire seemed like an exotic breakthrough. Of course, now I realise that every family, every generation – every life, in fact – is full of stories that might be discarded by a novelist for being too fanciful. And as all family historians know: there is no such thing as an ordinary family.

sleathy-card-2Novelty card featuring my Edwardian actor ancestor, Herbert Sleath-Skelton (middle), discovered in a Harrogate garden centre!

Do not assume. This pithy three-worder is the companion to the previous aphorism. Most family historians will be aware of this old chestnut – and despite its hoariness it is not one to discard. But while it makes sense when applied to written records which need to be cross-checked (an example of such an error will be illustrated next month), it is often more difficult to follow this piece of advice when it comes to social history in general. Is it somehow wrong to state that James Skelton’s second wife, my great-great grandmother Mary Ann Hawkins, might have once been a local prostitute who met her much older lover and future husband through this profession (see When I Grow Rich)? Or that my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Skelton (née Holton), could have been an alcoholic, dying as she did in her thirties from cirrhosis of the liver (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers)? Perhaps the important thing is to make sure that such conjectures are not described as facts, but to lay out the supporting evidence and guide the reader to make up their own mind on the matter.

And what about coincidence? My students tell me that whenever they actively learn new vocabulary from our in-class texts they will often encounter this same expression somewhere else shortly afterwards, even though they claim to have never come across the word previously. So I use this observation to illustrate to them how their vocabulary is being strengthened and developed almost without them being aware of it. Almost, that is, apart from these ‘coincidences’ which remind them that since having ‘learnt’ a new vocabularly item they will start to recognise it in many different situations. And thus it is with research and background reading. It is not uncommon for me to discover a fact about Victorian London, only for it to resonate with a particular tale I want to tell. Or I will visit a new place which later becomes pivotal in the lives of one of my ancestors. I therefore embrace all the chances to learn about my topic in many different ways, never presuming that there is nothing new to discover about a particular subject.

A further point to make in regard to coincidence is that I have found again and again that disparate ancestors often lived in close proximity to each other at different times in their lives. This will become particularly apparent in the coming months as I focus on the ‘lost’ family that my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, had with his first wife, Sarah Vaughan. And so it was that my father grew up in a terraced house in Brixton, just a stone’s throw from the section of Coldharbour Lane where, unbeknown to him, his great-grandfather, James Skelton had lived with his first family, one hundred years previously. Later, when my grandparents moved to the new Bloomfield Estate in West Norwood, my father would have seen from his upstairs bedroom window the spire of the church in Gipsy Hill where James William’s children (including Herbert) had been baptised (as Sleath-Skeltons*) in the 1870s. *That three-pronged fabulous offshoot of the family tree, which rapidly grew towards the light, but withered and died before its strange flowers could produce any fruit.

gipsy-hillSpire of Christ Church, Gipsy Hill, from the Bloomfield Estate

On a more personal note, when I moved to London in 1984, little did I know that a few months later I would be living round the corner from the place where my grandfather’s sister, Rose Ryall, lived out her old age (see A Rose in Holly Park). And most recently, after visiting a writer friend at her home in Kensington, I was delighted to discover that one of the ‘lost’ Skelton children had lived in this same Victorian mansion block for several decades. Even the impetus for continuing my genealogical research came from the chance meeting of an old man in Somerset with an identical photograph to the one I had found in my father’s wallet (see In my Beginning is my End).

Coker Wood 1944 (3)The 1944 East Coker photograph that sparked my current quest

Many of the aforementioned coincidences are, however, not so surprising – particularly given the fact that London was smaller in the past and the Skeltons had mostly chosen to make their mark in certain neighbourhoods. But still it can be an uncanny experience to follow these family ley lines across the city, slipping between the centuries and social classes, as one street or suburb gives way to another. Only recently I had such an experience when the large villa in Croydon, where James William had first set up home in the 1860s (in what was then countryside) flashed up on the TV screen. It was a scene from a short political broadcast by the Conservative Party to illustrate the number of new affordable homes they  claimed were being erected in the Croydon area. And this large remaining grand house – now much vandalised, yet once admirably situate, facing Morland Park, was given as an example of a dilapidated building about to torn down and replaced by new flats. In the photograph below, it is just possible to glimpse the block of seventies’ flats which has already been built in what the auctioneer so exquisitely describes in the London Standard of 5th June 1868 as the valuable mansion’s pleasure-grounds and well-stocked kitchen garden.

westle-houseThe’ valuable mansion’ which James William named Westle House

A few days previously I had marked this address in my A to Z as worthy of a revisit for an upcoming London trip, and as I froze the image and rewound and replayed the scene again and again, I felt almost dizzy with the sensation of two worlds colliding. But the oddest thing was that just seconds before the building had appeared on the screen I had this sudden premonition that poor old Westle House was about to feature. I still don’t know where this feeling came from – perhaps it was simply an obvious candidate for the section on regenerating Croydon. It is certainly one of the ‘family buildings’ that has haunted me most since I first visited it one winter’s afternoon, and felt slightly spooked by its appearance – the lone survivor of a bucolic past in a heavily built up area. Unfortunately, in the summer of 2014 a homeless man was found dead in the grounds (now protected by a solid metal fence), and it is hard to reconcile this sad building with the glorious villa it has obviously once been.

So while the rational part of me acknowledges that true coincidences are in fact rare events, there is still a part of me that wonders if my ancestors are trying to prod and nudge me in the direction of their stories. Perhaps it is this continued belief in the magic of my quest which makes me feel that, despite the inevitable frustrations surrounding such a project, it is a worthwhile undertaking.

Happy New Year! from The Incidental Genealogist, January 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?

london_changes_shoreditch_church_1839b

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!

34986_std

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

1395255027266

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