Chances are, you have ancestors who were domestic servants, or who employed domestic servants. Have you taken the time to look at who their employers or servants were, and how the ‘other half’ lived?
Although it may seem that life upstairs and downstairs was very separate, many domestic servants lived and worked at close quarters with the family of the house. The status, lifestyle, and interests of an employer could have had a significant impact on servants, but servants also deserve recognition for their invisible role in wealthier ancestors’ history; their hard graft enabled their employers to enjoy a better quality of life and leave their much more visible legacy.
By including employers and employees, servants and masters/mistresses in your FAN club (Friends, Associates, Neighbours) you might uncover some rich and surprising stories. Here are two from my family tree …
Part 1: Polly Smith and the Gosselins
My great grandmother was named Mary Smith on every official record, but she was known to friends and family as Polly. Polly was born in 1878 in Stoke Mandeville, Bucks, the daughter of an Ag Lab and an ‘Ag Lab’s Wife’. However, changes in farming methods reduced the need for women and girls to work on the land, which presented a challenge to large families. In 1891, at the age of 13, Polly was enumerated in her parents’ home in Stoke Mandeville but was already working as a domestic servant. Her two older brothers, Edwin, 20, and William, 16, worked as wheelwrights. Her older sister, Annie, 19, was a domestic servant in Aylesbury for the family of a banker’s clerk. Only her two little sisters, seven-year old Emma and two-year-old Lizzie, weren’t contributing to the family’s income. (And two, or possibly three, more younger sisters had sadly died). The family of seven lived in four rooms.
Stoke Mandeville parish had a population of under 500, as well as an ebbing number of cholera patients who were treated in an isolation hospital on its border with Aylesbury. After WW2, Stoke Mandeville hospital became world-renowned for treatment of spinal injuries and as the birthplace of the paralympic movement. However, as the Victorian era came to an end this was still a very quiet, rural location. Although Polly had found work, and gained skills, her opportunities in Stoke Mandeville would have been very limited.
By 1901, Polly had left Buckinghamshire behind for Battersea, 40 miles away. In leaving the village of her birth, whether by choice or necessity, she was part of a local and national trend. Stoke Mandeville’s population more than doubled from 1801 to 1871, but since 1871 it had declined by one fifth. From 1891 to 1901, the population of England and Wales grew 12%, but Bucks only grew its population by 1.5% compared with London’s 7%.1 The numbers show plainly that people, including young women like Polly, were leaving the countryside for urban areas. In industrial towns, women found work in factories, but elsewhere, women’s work was dominated by domestic service. In 1891, 1.38 million people in Britain were employed as indoor domestic servants.2
What was it like in London at the turn of the 20th century? The air was full of soot and smoke, and 300,000 horses were creating 1000 tons of dung on the roads every day.3 Battersea, which only 60 years earlier had been much like Stoke Mandeville, still had some green spaces, but was now packed with industrial buildings, railway sheds, and in some areas, slums. Nevertheless, there were plenty of comfortable new homes there for middle class people who could afford the convenience and status of employing a general servant.
In 1901, Polly, aged 22, was employed as a housemaid by the Gosselin family in York Mansions, 132, Prince of Wales Road. The family consisted of Nicholas Gosselin, 63, a ‘Retired Major of Infantry Army Man’ born in Plymouth, his wife Catherine Rebecca ‘Kate’ Gosselin (née Haslett), 57, from Londonderry, Ireland, and their unmarried daughter Selena Frances, 33, also from what’s now Northern Ireland (County Cavan).
York Mansions was constructed in 1897 and completed in 1901, so it was brand new when Polly moved in. The building consisted of 100 flats arranged around courtyards. Flats at the front overlooked Battersea Park. The apartments were purposely designed for a family with a live-in maid, and thanks to Wikipedia I have a detailed description of the layout, including the spaces that Polly would have lived and worked in:
Flats measured approximately 1,500 square feet (140 m2) for a 3-bedroom flat, and 1,800 square feet (170 m2) for a 4-bedroom flat, and included a drawing room, dining room, bathroom and rooms for a maid to live and work.A below-ground corridor ran the full length of the building, which provided internal access to the three separate courtyards and also acted as a servant’s corridor (servants did not use the main entrance to the building). In addition, the building was equipped with service lifts which led directly from the courtyards to the kitchens.
As had become standard, a small servant’s corridor was separated off within each flat and a separate servant’s lavatory (but no bathroom) was provided. Except at the ends of the building where it would have been considered too public and unseemly, the servants’ lavatory was outside, accessed from the balcony beside the kitchen door.
No separate scullery was provided and the original plans show the kitchen sink in the same room as the range and always in front of a window. At the time this was an unconventional arrangement, and was later termed ‘American style’.The flats at the rear corners of the building offered an unusual scenario where the maid, working at the sink, looked out at Battersea Park and had one of the best views in the whole flat.
When built the flats were modern, and had Queen Anne and Kate Greenaway style fire-surrounds, corrugated brass finger plates and plain ceilings. Ceiling roses were still being installed in many new houses but, by this date, were increasingly being viewed as somewhat “lower middle class”. The flats also had a chrome postal handle, some of the York Mansions’ flats still make use of the original fitting (the postal handle is a horizontal post flap with a fixed handle just below the opening, which is used to pull the flat door shut).
Although electricity appears to have been laid along Prince of Wales Drive, London at a very early stage, it was not extended into York Mansions until after the First World War. Lighting was by gas, utilising the new incandescent mantles, which concealed the naked flames and produced a softer, pleasanter light.Cooking was by solid fuel, using the rather square-rather-than-wide kitchen ranges. A coal-bin for each flat was provided in a cupboard outside the kitchen door in the servant’s corridor.4
From this description, I can tell that my great grandmother, though living in a family home, would (probably) have been kept as separate from her employers as possible. And unlike the family, she had no bathroom. Nevertheless, at least she could enjoy the view while she worked at the sink! Thankfully, Polly would not have been completely isolated, as she was not the only servant in the home. There was also a cook — 32-year-old Mary Stoat, from Ireland. Two servants for a family of three may sound very comfortable, but in 1891, the Gosselins had had three live-in servants — a cook, housemaid and parlour maid. Even if their previous home was larger, Polly was doing the work that had previously been done by two women.
A housemaid typically rose by 6 am and worked until late at night. Her responsibilities would have included cleaning and polishing, lighting fires, setting and clearing tables, bedmaking, and needlework.5 Without a parlour maid, she would probably also have answered the front door, attended to guests, and served meals. Although there isn’t room in this blog to go into more detail on domestic service, I can recommend a very evocative book, a day in the life of a Victorian Domestic Servant, by L. Davidoff & R. Hawthorn (George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1976), which, although set a few decades earlier, really brings their world to life.
As a working-class woman, Polly would probably have known about Battersea’s reputation for political activism. Britain’s first socialist party was founded there by John Burns in the 1880s, and in 1892, Burns became one of the first Independent Labour Party members of Parliament.6
Ironically, Nicholas Gosselin, the head of Polly’s household, had made his career leading efforts to suppress the ‘radical’ political movement for Irish Home Rule. Gosselin, the son of an Irish Army Major, had joined the army at 16. He later served as an Irish magistrate before being head-hunted in 1883 by the Home Office, who put him in charge of the newly formed Special Irish Branch. Their mandate was to gather intelligence on Fenian organisations operating in Glasgow and northern England. The Fenians were a secret political umbrella organisation with members in Ireland and the United States, dedicated to Ireland’s autonomy. Seen as freedom fighters by some, and terrorists to others, between 1881 and 1885, the Fenians launched a series of dynamite attacks on England’s urban centres, terrifying the public. Over 80 people were injured and a young boy was killed.
Gosselin, nicknamed ‘The Gosling’, coordinated covert intelligence agents across Britain and Ireland, and worked closely with Dublin’s Metropolitan Police. Gosselin’s correspondence with Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland (and later PM), shows that he had an agent working within the Irish Party, code named ‘L’, whose palm was ‘itching’ for bribes. His papers also reveal that he employed agents provocateurs, including an American ex-Fenian, to seed conspiracies about Fenian dynamite threats. He was also instrumental in bringing down Parnell, head of the Irish Nationalist Party, who, with the support of Liberal leader Gladstone, hoped to achieve Home Rule for Ireland. By exposing more details of Parnell’s long-term affair with his mistress, Gosselin helped stoke the scandal that ultimately stalled Home Rule, removing an option that could have avoided another century of bloodshed. Fenian bombing campaigns continued in England and Ireland until 1900, but in the 1890s Gosselin turned his attention to Irish republican organisations like Clan Na Gael. Athough Gosselin claimed to be simply a retired army man in the 1901 census, he continued to work for Irish Special Branch until his retirement in 1904/5.
I studied the ‘Irish Question’ in A Level History, but that was a long time ago, and this is an extremely complex subject, so I can’t claim to fully understand the role that Gosselin played. However, I’ve included some links to learn more about him below.
I wonder what Polly felt about Major Gosselin. Was he a hero? A man to be feared? Or simply an employer who paid her wages? Did she, in fact, have any contact with the ‘man of the household’, or only with the women of the family? After all, it was the lady or ladies of the house who typically oversaw its management. Unfortunately, I know much less about Kate and Selina Gosselin. Kate was the eldest daughter of William Haslett, a JP and the Mayor of Londonderry, so I imagine that she was a confident and educated woman who had always had servants at her beck and call.
After Nicholas Gosselin retired from special branch, he was knighted, and he and his wife moved to Kent. However, he continued to be politically active. In 1911, Deputy-Lieutenants and magistrates of Co. Monaghan met to discuss their approach to an imminent visit by the new King George V. Sir Gosselin expressed his wish to ‘pour oil on the troubled waters’; ‘they were assembled there to congratulate the king upon his succession to the Throne of this mighty Empire’ and ‘they should stick to that one subject.7You can watch a newsreel of the royal visit to Ireland in 1911 here. In 1916, Gosselin’s was a prominent (and controversial) voice calling for conscription in Ireland.8 Lord Gosselin passed away in 1917, followed by Lady Gosselin in 1920. Selina never married, and passed away in 1955.
In 1906, Polly Smith married William Wyatt, my great grandfather. William was born two miles from Polly, but had lived and worked in London as an engine driver on the Metropolitan Line, which connected Bucks to central London. They settled in Willesden and raised a family before finally returning to Buckinghamshire. My dad, their grandson, had no idea his grandmother had worked as a domestic servant. Polly’s death certificate gave her occupation as ‘wife of William Wyatt a Retired Railway Engine Driver’.
I’m proud that Polly had the courage to go to London to find work as a young woman, and the strength to carry out such physically demanding work. I now know that Polly also played a role, albeit behind the scenes, in the complex history of Irish independence.
Learn more about Nicholas Gosselin and the Fenians:
In Part 1, I shared the story of my great grandmother Polly Smith, who was employed as a domestic servant by the head of the government’s Irish Special Branch. Now we turn to another ancestor who worked in service, whose charismatic employer was a nationally renowned organiser of Tudor-style pageants …
Millicent Gifford and the D’Arcy Ferrars
Millicent Clara Gifford, my husband’s great grandaunt, was born in Bream in the Forest of Dean in 1873, the third child of Mark Gifford, a miner, and Harriet Ann Jones. Sadly, Millicent lost her mother when she was just over a year old, and her father remarried within the year. Millicent’s first-born step-sibling, Ida — my husband’s great grandmother — was sent to Lancashire to be raised by an aunt and uncle as a young child, but Millicent was able to stay at home with her father and step-mother; she was a scholar, aged 8, in the family home in 1881.
Whereas some Forest of Dean families passed down free mining rights through the generations, Mark Gifford was the son of a labourer; he had worked in the mines since he was a child and he toiled for the profit of colliery owners. After decades as an iron miner he switched to coal mining in the 1880s, as the region’s iron ore output plummeted. His occupation was both dangerous and precarious.
Foresters were renowned for being insular, and even as an increasing number of railways connected the area to the rest of the country, it was primarily coal, not people, that travelled beyond its borders. The tight-knit mining communities were also judged by outsiders to be uncivilised, even savage, especially after the infamous ‘killing of the bears’ in 1889.
However, young women did leave the Forest in search of new opportunities. Millicent’s teenage older sister, Elizabeth, had left home by 1881, and by 1891 she was a servant in Liverpool. Then, Millicent too left her village and her family to work in domestic service far from home. She found a position in the elegant spa town of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, more than 50 miles away — but, really, worlds apart — from Bream and the Forest of Dean.
Cheltenham’s heyday as a spa town was over by the mid 19th century, but the town continued to attract wealthy families, especially those who had served in the colonies, including the Army and East India Company. The town also attracted evangelical Anglicans, who established several new educational establishments such as Cheltenham College and Cheltenham Ladies College. Another, very different branch of my husband’s family — wealthy and devout — lived in Cheltenham in the 1840s, and sent a son to Cheltenham College. By the 1890s, genteel Cheltenham also had three railway stations (and a special one at the racecourse for race days), an opera house, theatre, free library, art gallery, parks, and even some new bath houses. The Montpellier Rotunda, built in the early 1800s and set in the Montpellier Gardens, had a dome inspired by Rome’s Pantheon. Formerly a pump room and ballroom, by the 1890s it was used as a concert venue. (it’s now the location of one of The Ivy chain of restaurants).
Cheltenham had a ‘vibrant’ music scene. During the early 1890s, numerous renowned musicians came to perform there, and there was also a wealth of local talent. A bandstand was installed in Montpellier Gardens and used for regular concerts. Sacred music also thrived. The organist and choirmaster of All Saints’ Church was Adolph von Holst, whose wife Clara was a talented pianist and singer. Their son Gustav, now best known as composer of The Planets, was born in Cheltenham in 1874. In 1890, father and son gave a piano concert together in the Montpellier Rotunda, and in 1891, Holst performed his own composition there.
That same year, Millicent, aged 18, was a domestic cook in the household of the exotically named ‘E.R. Darcy de Ferrars’, who was a 36-year-old Professor of Singing.
Their address, 3 Montpellier Grove, an elegant townhouse of four floors, was just a short stroll away from the Montpellier Rotunda and Gardens.
Ernest Richard D’Arcy Ferris, as he was named at birth, really was a fantastic character. He was the son of Samuel Ferris of the Indian Civil Service, and Fanny — a schoolteacher and the daughter of the hilariously named Reverend Evill. Born in Bath in 1855, D’Arcy (his preferred first name) lost his father at the age of three. While his older brothers went into conventional careers, he moved to London and worked as a ‘violinist and professor of singing’. In 1878 he sang in the chorus of the world premiere of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore.
In the 1880s Ferris relocated to Cheltenham, where as well as continuing to teach, conduct, and perform as a singer, he advertised himself as a ‘Designer and Director of Fetes, Festivities, Festivals, and Functions’.
In 1885, he was hired by Lord and Lady Wantage to organise a summer garden party at Lockinge House, Wantage in Berkshire. Lord Wantage was looking for something a bit different, and D’Arcy Ferris conceived of an Elizabethan-style pageant which he called ‘The Festival of ye Summer Queene’. I first heard about this lavish and exuberant party, which became widely known as the ‘Lockinge Revels’, when I was volunteering at the Vale & Downland Museum in Wantage. The two-day event included morris dancing, a Robin Hood play, a hobby horse tournament, and a spectacular procession of the summer queen, in which Lady Wantage was carried through the gardens surrounded by costumed attendants and entertainers. Hundreds of guests — the movers and shakers of the day — attended in costume. The Vale & Downland Museum has an 18th century sackback dress on display which was worn to the party, and the Oxfordshire Museums Service also has in its collection this piece of costume from the pageant:
In addition to the hundreds of wealthy and influential guests, local workhouse children were ‘invited to the park, and duly regaled’, and tea was served to the villagers. According to several reports, spectators numbered in their thousands.
Thanks to the ‘technical knowledge and unwearied exertions’ of Master of the Revels D’Arcy Ferris, the Lockinge Revels were a huge success, and were reported in newspapers across the UK, with a wonderful illustration published in The Graphic. I have a framed copy in my living room. The Pictorial World also offered ‘numerous sketches by special artists’ of guests in costume. It was soon after researching the Lockinge Revels for the museum, that I discovered my own connection to D’Arcy Ferris!
I should note that not all coverage of the event was positive. The London Evening Standard published a very sardonic piece.1 However, the event captured the public’s imagination, and buoyed by the nation’s interest in the Old English Revels at Wantage, D’Arcy Ferris then took a part of his show on the road, presenting the ‘Shakespearean Bidford Morris Dancers’ at ticketed events in 16 different venues across the country, including Cheltenham. As Master of the Revels to be hosted in Ripon in 1886, he proposed a grand performance of ‘Robin Hood’ near the Abbey with a chorus of 50 foresters and forest maidens, and offered to write to Oscar Wilde, then a little known poet, to ask Wilde to write the play!
D’Arcy Ferris’s morris dancing troupe, formed from working class ‘rustics’, helped to revive this ancient tradition in the UK. He also showcased sword dancing, which also received fresh interest, particularly by the aptly named folklorist Cecil Sharp. (For family and local historians, an online database of hundreds of working class people that Sharp met while touring England from 1903-1923 is a fantastic resource). Ferris’s passion for traditional music, dance and art was part of a national trend that encompassed the Arts and Crafts movement and the folksong revival that in Britain was led by composers including Ralph Vaughan Williams. Holst, a friend of Vaughan Williams, also composed settings of traditional songs.
In 1888 D’Arcy legally changed his surname to ‘de Ferrars’. It was fashionable for professional musicians to add an exotic touch to their names but the change to Ferrars was also a reference to George Ferrars, who had been appointed as Master of the Revels/Lord of Misrule to help entertain the teenage King Edward VI in 1552-3.
The following year, D’Arcy de Ferrars organised an ice carnival at the Albert Hall and also got married to Isabel Browne. In 1891, Millicent Gifford was cooking for the newlyweds and their first child, Mary M. Joan D’Arcy de Ferrars (known as Joan), just ten months old. The only other servant recorded in the household was a 15-year-old nurse (presumably to help care for the baby). Her name was Blanche Foster and she came from Gloucester, so I do hope she recited ‘Doctor Foster Went to Gloucester’ to baby Joan.
In 1892 D’Arcy de Ferrars and Adolph von Holst hosted and performed a benefit concert together at Cheltenham’s corn exchange2, and the following year in the same venue, D’Arcy Ferrars produced and conducted Gustav Holst’s early (and mostly forgotten) comic opera, Lansdown Castle, written when Holst was just 18.
Unfortunately I don’t know how long Millicent Gifford worked for the de Ferrars family, but I do like to think that she would have met Gustav Holst, and perhaps cooked for him.
What would Ernest and Isabel de Ferrars have been like as employers?
It’s very hard to say what Millicent’s time in Cheltenham was like. Life as a domestic servant is never easy, but in a home with just three family members and one other servant, she must have experienced the sights and sounds created by her multi-talented and probably larger-than-life employer. Perhaps the monotony and physical exertion of daily cooking and cleaning would have been lifted by music drifting, or even loudly reverberting, around the house.
In 1894, Millicent, aged 21, married collier William Ellway aka William Watts, at Viney Hill in the Forest of Dean. After several years in the household of a musician and party host, a short walk from a beautiful park and concert hall, she returned to live in a rural mining community, and raised six children — four girls and two boys. I hope that she was happy as a wife and mother, in the place where she had grown up, but it must have been a stark contrast.
The de Ferrars family also grew, adding two more daughters and a son. In 1911, the family lived in Highgate, and D’Arcy stated his occupation as ‘Pageant Master’. No servants were enumerated with them. D’Arcy de Ferrars also continued to compose and and produce. His eclectic projects included an operetta, ‘Japan in Cheltenham’, in 1901. He was responsible for the ‘spectacular’ Liverpool Pageant of 1907, and his last major venture, the Worsley pageant, was held in 1914.
D’Arcy de Ferrars spent his retirement years in Padstow, Cornwall, and passed away in London in 1929. Surprisingy, an obituary in the Cornish Guardian remembered him above all as a singer. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
D’Arcy’s eldest daughter, Joan, whose first meals were cooked by Millicent Gifford, grew up to be a popular coloratura soprano. In 1925 her performance as Marguerite in Faust at London’s Old Vic, was broadcast by radio, and heard ‘throughout the West of England’.
Millicent was widowed in 1917. She remarried to widower Reuben James, another colliery worker, in 1930, and she died in 1947. Millicent’s eldest son became a miner working underground. However, just as D’Arcy de Ferrars’ daughter had inherited her father’s vocal talents, Millicent may have passed down her skills and aptitude for domestic service; her youngest son, Winston Gifford Watts, worked as a butler in Anderson Manor, Blandford, Dorset. He lived to be 101, only passing away in 2012.
Sources and Further Reading
Lockinge Revels complete programme and guest list printed in the Berkshire Chronicle, 29 August 1885 (p.8) and Reading Mercury, 29 August 1885 (p.4)
R. Judge, ‘D’Arcy Ferris and the Bidford Morris’, Folk Music JournalVol. 4, No. 5 (1984), pp. 443-480 (38 pages), Published By: English Folk Dance + Song Society.
Deodatus William EATON was born in Oxford in 1819 — the fourth generation of Oxford men with this unusual Christian name, which means ‘God-given’.
His great grandfather, the first Deodatus (1700-1758), was a wood and coal dealer, a business continued by his widow Joan. Their son Deodatus (2) was born in 1746 (his twin sister Elizabeth was the first wife of my husband’s 5x great grandfather). He was apprenticed to a tailor, but took over the family’s coal merchant business after his mother’s death. Deodatus (2) married Mary SLATTER and they had six children, baptising Deodatus (3) in 1778. Deodatus (2) died in 1796, and Deodatus (3) continued the family coal business, but by his late thirties, when he married Ann HAYCOCK, he was selling coal and wine! By the birth of their first son Deodatus William in 1819, Deodatus (3) was solely a wine merchant. The family — with 10 surviving children — lived in St Aldate’s.
As business thrived, Deodatus (3) became increasingly influential. Soon after being elected as a Common Council-Man in 1820, he became a Chamberlain and Auditor of the House of Industry. In 1825 he was promoted to Bailiff. Newspapers reported on several of his speeches, including one in 1831 to the Freemen of Oxford about parliamentary reform, of which he was a ‘strenuous advocate’. He became an Assistant of the City in 1834, as well as Commissioner of the Sewers, and in 1835 he served in the Mayor’s Court.
In 1836, the City Council passed a resolution to build a railway linking Oxford to London and joining the Great Western Railway. Deodatus was one of 17 men, including Oxford’s Mayor and two MPs, who formed a committee to see this through. The Consulting Engineer on the project was none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel!
Deodatus (4), b. 1819, who attended Aynho School (a free grammar school near Banbury), was the first of the family to attend the University of Oxford. He matriculated at Lincoln College as a Lord Crewe’s Exhibitioner at the age of 14, graduating with a B.A. in 1838 and M.A. in 1841. His brother John Slatter EATON, one year younger, received a B.A. from Worcester College in 1844, becoming Rev. EATON.
In 1841, the family of 13 lived at 3, St Aldate’s with five servants, and also had an address at Southampton St, Bloomsbury Square, London. However, their comfortable existence came to an abrupt end when Deodatus (3) died in 1845. Sadly, due to a complex inheritance issue, Deodatus’s widow and children were forced to leave their home and the city of Oxford. ‘The solicitor of all parties induced her to leave the house in which [Ann] resided in Oxford, called D. Eaton’s house, and come to London, and from that time to the present, she never received a sixpence from the settled property.’ (Morning Post, 15 Dec 1852).
The family’s substantial moving sale shows that they had a very luxurious home and a staggering amount of wine and liqueurs (presumably for sale rather than personal consumption), but it also suggests that they needed to raise cash urgently:
Ann had several children to care for, the youngest, Reginald, being only about six years old when his father died. At the age of 12, Reginald was apprenticed to the Merchant Navy and set sail to Australia, where he tragically died at the age of 20. Another son emigrated to the USA.
Deodatus (4), the eldest surviving child, had been fortunate to graduate from the Royal College of Surgeons just before his father’s death. He then secured the position of Assistant Surgeon to the 70th Regiment. In 1849 he married Sarah Lydia ALCOCK, youngest daughter of James ALCOCK, Grand Jury Treasurer of Waterford, near Dublin. The couple spent their first three weeks in Cork and then left for India, living in Calcutta, then Cawnpore (Kanpur) – a major site in the ‘Indian Rebellion’ of 1857 – and other places in East India.
However, Deodatus’s career and personal life were suffering. Possibly due to ill health, he was placed on half pay. At the same time, he was announced in newspapers as a bankrupt. Deodatus and Sarah seem to have spent time in Kent and Dublin during this period. By 1862 he was back at work, posted to Jamaica and Barbados with the 3rd West India Regiment — an unpopular appointment. In 1862 Deodatus, based at Parkhurst Barracks, Isle of Wight, was once again announced as a bankrupt, and he blamed his wife: ‘The bankrupt attributed his embarrassment to the extravagance of his wife, Sarah Lydia Eaton, who had since eloped from him.’ (Hampshire Advertiser, 23 Aug 1862). In fact, the couple had separated in 1859.
On 13 December, it was reported in the Naval & Military Gazette that ‘Staff-Surg Deodatus William Eaton has been removed from the Army, Her Majesty having no further occasion for his services.’ Ouch! It was practice at the time for the military to dismiss bankrupts, though their salary could be used to liquidise debts. Officers could also sell their commissions. However, these options weren’t available to surgeons. Deodatus’s case, which raised questions about fairness, was discussed in the House of Commons.
In 1862, Deodatus filed for divorce, and it’s my belief that Deodatus was financially motivated to pursue the case in court.
The first petition claimed that in 1858-59 Sarah EATON had ‘committed adultery with one the Honorable James MacDonald of the Albany Chambers Piccadilly’. The Hon. James William BOSVILLE-MACDONALD was the son of Baron Macdonald, and Private Secretary and Equerry of His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge, with whom he served at the Crimea. He married the daughter of a baron in 1859.
Deodatus also claimed that in 1860, in Barbados and on board the Himalaya — a Royal Naval vessel, Sarah ‘had committed adultery with one James Hamilton Bews Staff surgeon in Her Majesty’s Army by whom she was pregnant.’ Since then, Deodatus believed that Sarah had been living with BEWS in New Zealand ‘and leading an adulterous life.’ (Sarah and James had indeed had an illegitimate child — James Hamilton Heaton BEWS — born in New Zealand in 1861.) BEWS had been promoted to Assistant Surgeon at the same time as Deodatus in 1844. Perhaps as well as professional peers, they were friends.
Concluding the application, Deodatus requested not only the dissolution of the marriage, but also £1000 in damages from James MACDONALD!
The case was unsuccessful, and in 1863 Deodatus, then a surgeon on Sloane Street, tried again. This second application made no mention of Col. MACDONALD, but provided additional details of his wife’s relationship with James BEWS, revealing that they had lived together in Chelsea for three months in 1861. Deodatus’s petition again requested financial compensation — this time asking that James BEWS pay the legal fees and provide ‘other relief’. Neither petition mentions Sarah’s ‘extravagance’ — though that would have had no legal bearing on the case. The marriage was finally dissolved in November 1863. I don’t know if Deodatus received any compensation, but James BEWS died the following year with an estate of less than £200.
Whether due to scandal or opportunity, Deodatus now decided to leave Britain and start afresh in Tasmania. On New Year’s Eve 1864 he embarked on the Dauntless, serving as the Surgeon Superintendent for 420 passengers — primarily government immigrants. A description of the 135-day voyage said, with understatement, that it was ‘not by any means a peaceful one’…
Just a week into the journey, the Dauntless encountered a ship in distress; the Pryne of St John’s, transporting timber to Liverpool, was missing its rudder and sails. The captain declined assistance but ‘tea, sugar, water and tobacco were sent on board’.
Throughout the voyage, the sailors, unhappy with living conditions, were on several occasions ‘in a state of mutiny. They threatened to take the ship into the Cape of Good Hope. The captain broke open a case of rifles consigned to the Colonial Secretary, and he and the officers always went around armed.’ Six crew members were put in irons during the voyage, and taken off the ship into police custody.
Finally, just off the coast of Tasmania, they rescued 17 crew and the mate of the Fiery Star, an unfortunately named liner that had been destroyed by fire with a large loss of life.
It was a perilous journey for passengers too. Tragically, three women and 17 children died on the voyage. Nevertheless, Dr. EATON, who attended to 17 births (including twins) and solemnised two marriages on board, was presented with a ‘complimentary testimonial’ signed by almost all of the passengers:
Deodatus must have arrived in the New World feeling relieved and optimistic about his future. Six months later, a newspaper announced him as a ‘NEW MEDICAL PRACTITIONER’ who ‘has been en-rolled in the list of the legally qualified Medical Practitioners of Tasmania.’ (Cornwall Chronicle, 18 Nov 1865)His medical expertise must have been respected, as he was called on to give evidence in two murder trials in 1868 and 1870.
However, not long after arriving down under, Deodatus was in and out of court for insolvency yet again. Perhaps this explains why he left Tasmania for Victoria in mainland Australia. Once there, he possibly ‘did a runner’ from the town of Donald to Geelong, 160mi away, as his whereabouts were sought in the paper. In Geelong he incurred yet more debts due to ‘adverse judgment in the Court of Petty Sessions at Donald, pressure of other creditors, and bad debts’. (Geelong Advertiser, 20 Feb 1878). It seems that Deodatus’s own poor financial management was at the root of his chronic debts.
Deodatus William EATON died in Koroit, Victoria, Australia on 14 July 1879, aged 59 (all four Deodatus EATONs died in their fifties). The circumstances of his ‘DEATH BY POISON’ prompted a four-day inquest. He had seemingly been accidentally poisoned by taking oxide of zinc, rather than carbonate of soda. Dr. EATON had made up the prescription for himself at the local chemist’s, as he was ‘suffering from the effects of whiskey’ (though was said to be sober). The jury found that his death had been caused by a diseased heart and ‘some irritable poison administered by himself’, and the chemist was criticised for his carelessness. However, the newspaper reports also hint that Deodatus’s ingestion of the poison may have not been accidental. Noone knew much of the doctor’s past, though he claimed to have been a widower for 10 years, but they knew he was ‘in difficulties’ and ‘a lawyer had his business in hand’. Additionally, it was stated that ‘anyone’ (especially a doctor) ought to know the difference between the two white powders, and Deodatus seems to have taken an unexplained high dose. (Portland Guardian, 19 Jul 1879). Even more suspiciously,when a doctor called on Deodatus two hours before his demise, Deodatus ‘asked for a certificate that illness prevented him from answering a fraud summons at Beaufort on that day.’ (The Age, 17 Jul 1879)
The last Deodatus had no children to carry on the name, and he died intestate, with only £30 14s 2d to his name (in cash, clothing and a few surgical instruments). He was survived by his ex-wife, mother, and several siblings, the last of whom, Charlotte Ellen EATON, a spinster, died in Oxford in 1908. Despite being a divorcé, persistent bankrupt, and emigrant to the other side of the world, the death of ‘EATON, Deodatus W., M.A., M.R.C.S.E., son of the late Mr. Deodatus, of Oxford’ received a brief notice in London’s Pall Mall Gazette.
This article has been edited slightly since publication in Oxfordshire Family Historian with the following additions: family’s relationship to my husband, images of the Anglesey and of Bosville-Macdonald, death notice from the Pall Mall Gazette, and a note about the family’s substantial wine cellar.
In Part 1, Fanny Talmer, a young unmarried woman from a Buckinghamshire hamlet, gave birth to two boys in Amersham workhouse — Richard in 1845 and Henry in 1850. Tragically, Henry died at nine weeks of age, and following an inquest, Fanny was charged with his murder. After several harrowing weeks in Aylesbury Gaol, and a trial at the Assizes, she was acquitted, and returned to the workhouse. Fanny and Richard were both recorded there just two weeks later in the 1851 census. It’s possible that Richard had not lived outside of the workhouse since his birth. In 1855, Fanny’s luck changed, when she married a local labourer. However, after only three years of marriage, she died of tuberculosis. Although Richard’s step-father was still alive in 1861, Richard was once again (or still?) in Amersham workhouse when the 1861 census was taken. Effectively an orphan, he seems to have been all alone in the world.
Part II: Richard Talmer
Growing up in the workhouse
When the 1861 Enumeration Book was filled out for Amersham Union Workhouse, there were nearly 200 paupers housed there, along with the workhouse master and matron (husband and wife), nurse, porter, and schoolmaster. Richard, aged 15, was a scholar, as were 61 other girls and boys aged 3-15 (the only exceptions in this age range being a 4-year-old whose place of birth was unknown (perhaps she had learning difficulties?), and a 15-year-old girl who was a domestic servant). The Poor Law Act of 1834 had many flaws, but it did require unions to hire a schoolmaster or schoolmistress, and to provide workhouse children with 3 hours of schooling per day.1 Richard was, in some ways, lucky to receive an education at this age, as few children attended school after 12, and nearly half of primary age children in England and Wales in this period still had no access to education at all.2 The workhouse schoolmaster was not much older than Richard — the 20-year-old son of a Sussex schoolmaster. (Later in his career he worked as a Relieving Officer, so I like to think that he was sympathetic to the difficult circumstances that forced people to seek poor law relief). The rest of the day, Richard, on the cusp of adulthood, probably would have been put to work doing manual labour, though he may also have been trained in industrial work, in preparation for life outside the workhouse.
Unfortunately, the next record I have of Richard isn’t a workhouse discharge, apprenticeship, employment record, or even a marriage. Instead, on 20 July 1867, Richard’s name appeared in the papers, publicly accused of a shocking and serious crime.
Richard was to be tried at Bucks Summer Assizes, which was to start on 22 July. What was this crime that he had committed with William Jennings, and that was so serious that it would be tried at the Assizes?
An unnatural crime
An ‘unnatural crime’, ‘unnatural act’, or ‘crime against nature’ was used euphemistically for a range of sexual activities (and also for suicide and child murder), but as a legal term, ‘unnatural crime’ was synonymous with buggery or sodomy — usually between people (regardless of consent), and, rarely, in cases of bestiality. Although noone had been executed for sodomy since 1838, it was only six years earlier that the Crimes Against the Person Act of 1861 had revoked the death penalty for this sexual act and replaced it with a minimum of 10 years’ hard labour, and as much as life imprisonment.
Technically, sodomy applied to oral as well as anal sex, and to heterosexual as well as homosexual unions. However, ‘convictions between men for sodomy were by far the most common and well publicised.’3 The newspaper report showed that Richard had been charged with another man. If intercourse with penetration could be proven, Richard faced a long prison sentence, even life. Even if he was acquitted, his name had been publicly and humiliatingly associated with a sex act with a man or beast; both were seen as abominations.
Who was William Jennings?
William Jennings, who faced trial with Richard, was another long-term or repeat inmate of Amersham workhouse. In 1861, when William was a workhouse schoolboy, William was also enumerated at the workhouse — a 31-year-old unmarried sawyer from Chesham. In 1867, when Richard and William were charged together with committing an unnatural crime, Richard was about 21, and William about 37.
William had also been in trouble with the law before. In the 1851 census he was a prisoner in Aylesbury Gaol. I’ve not been able to find out what his crime was.
A search of historic newspapers revealed that William had also been committed to Aylesbury Gaol in 1859, sentenced to 21 days for ‘misbehaviour in the workhouse’. The gaol receiving books record that William was a wood splitter, age 29.
On 22 July 1867, the Bucks Summer Assizes opened for business.
Newspapers reported in detail on the trials heard that day for a wide variety of crimes including attempted murder and highway robbery. When it came to Jennings’ and Talmer’s case, newspapers revealed little about their crime, simply reporting their sentence — 12 months for Jennings and 3 months with hard labour for Talmer. However, although newspapers refrained from salacious details, I was shocked by one headline:
I had assumed that the men had been accused of homosexual sex. Had they in fact been charged with a sexual crime involving an animal? I examined other ‘bestiality’ cases reported in Buckinghamshire newspapers in the 1860s and found that there were just two (thankfully), and in each case, only one person was tried and convicted.
When I first researched and wrote this blog post in April 2021, I took the newspaper headline literally, with the same meaning of bestiality as we understand it today. However, I have since reviewed surviving records from the trial, at the National Archives, and thanks to this additional research, I now know that my original hunch was correct; Talmer and Jennings had been charged with the crime — as it was then — of homosexual sex.
Reading the indictment increased my sadness and anger at how the two men had been treated. Like Fanny, William and Richard were subjected to language that was fanatically religious:
‘the said Richard Talmer, not having the fear of God before his eyes nor regarding the order of nature but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil … feloniously wickedly diabolically and against the order of nature was consenting to and did permit and suffer the said William Jennings … to have a venereal affair with the said Richard Talmer and then and there to carnally know him … and with him the said Richard Talmer … to commit and perpetrate the most detestable horrid and abominable crime called Buggery … to the great displeasure of Almight God to the great scandal of all human kind.’
The bombastic phrases stuffed with moral outrage and dripping with disgust were repeated several times over. Listening to the indictment before the judge, jury, and presumably friends, family, members of the public and newspaper reporters, must have been humiliating in the extreme.
According to notes added to the indictment, the men were found ‘not guilt of the felony [but] guilty of attempt to commit the same.’ The distinction was critical; if proven to have committed the act fully, the men could have faced life imprisonment.
Richard and William were tried and sentenced together. However, the fact that Richard was only sentenced to three months, compared with William’s 12 months, suggests that his actions he was judged to be less responsible, whether due to his age or some other factor. It is impossible for me to know what the relationship was between the two men; whether a one-off encounter or one of many, it could have been anything from abuse to mutual romantic love. Records also don’t tell me how their intimacy was discovered, though privacy in the workhouse must have been hard to come by.
The same day they were sentenced, they were registered on arrival at Aylesbury Gaol following their conviction for ‘Attempt to Commit B-y’. Their time in prison would be physically gruelling. The 1865 Prisons Act stated that prisons should be ‘hard labour, hard fare and hard board‘, and the men would have possibly been put to work on stone breaking, quarrying, or road building.
Richard had received an education and would have been able to read, so I take a modicum of comfort in the likelihood that he had no access to newspapers in gaol, and therefore didn’t have to endure seeing his name associated with an act that was viewed as bestial. However, I can imagine that his treatment in prison, by both officers and inmates, was extremely unpleasant.
After William Jennings and Richard Talmer served their sentences, it’s very likely that they immediately returned to the workhouse. In 1871, both men were enumerated there again — William a 41-year-old sawyer and Richard a 25-year-old Ag Lab. In spite of Richard’s stated occupation, I have no evidence that he ever worked in the outside world. If the men were friends or lovers, Richard would not have William’s company for long; the same quarter that the census was taken, William Jennings died, aged just 41.
However, for the first time since he was a child, Richard was with family members, as his grandparents William and Frances Talmer had (sadly) joined him at the workhouse. Nevertheless, though the three appear together, the inmates were enumerated alphabetically, so they may not have had a warm relationship. Frances died in 1876, and Richard and his grandfather were still in the workhouse in 1881, that time appearing on separate pages. William passed away in 1885 aged about 90.
Richard was still in the workhouse in the censuses of 1891 and 1901. In 1901, his place of birth was unknown, and a note in the last column (illegible to me) suggests that his health was failing.
In 1908, Richard Talmer died in Amersham workhouse, from acute catarrhal enteritis exhaustion. He was 62 years old. My 1st cousin 4x removed was born and died in Amersham Workhouse and was there for every census from 1851 to 1901.
Richard’s story is truly tragic. He was born into poverty and stigma, and his unmarried mother was so overwhelmed after having a second illegitimate baby that she probably caused that baby’s death. When he was a little boy, his mother spent months away from him in prison, and just a few years later she seems to have left him in the workhouse when she married. Richard was able to be a ‘scholar’ at the age of 15, so it’s unlikely that he had any mental disabilities, and he was described as an Ag Lab, so seems to have been physically able. However, he may well have been institutionalised at a young age, and it is likely that such a taboo crime, and his long association with the workhouse, would prevent him from gaining employment or any other support in his local community. It’s incredibly sad that Richard may have stayed in the workhouse for his entire adult life, anonymous and isolated, simply because he was gay.
Therefore, I was very surprised to see that Richard’s death was mentioned in a local newspaper. The notice of his death among other local obituaries was discreet, since it only included the workhouse’s street: ‘Whieldon Street, Amersham.’ However, elsewhere in the same paper, a notice of his death was also given by the workhouse Board of Guardians. I noted that in spite of Richard living his entire life in Amersham workhouse, he was said to be formerly of Great Missenden. By this time, my direct Talmer ancestors had moved from The Lee to nearby Great Missenden. I like to think that this tiny detail meant that Richard was still connected to his family, and that when he died, both he and his mother Fanny were remembered.
In 1867, Richard Talmer’s personal affairs brought him public shame and a criminal sentence, and were likely to have kept him in the workhouse for the rest of his life. Richard’s trial was held on 22 July 1867. On 21 July 1967, the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 in England and Wales finally made it possible for two consenting men over the age of 21 to have sex privately without breaking the law.
Fanny Talmer and her son Richard were both charged with felonies in the mid 1800s. In the first part of this blog, I explore Fanny’s story, looking at her crime in the context of early Victorian society. In today’s Britain, Fanny would have had a drastically different experience, both in her life opportunities, and within the justice system.
Trigger Warning:Please note that this blog post includes details of infant deaths and possible physical abuse towards infants.
Part 1: Fanny Talmer
Frances Talmer, known as Fanny, was a half-sister of my 3x great grandfather, William Talmer. She was born in about 1824 in The Lee, Buckinghamshire — a village and group of hamlets in the Chiltern Hills. Fanny was the second child of William Talmer, an agricultural labourer, and Judith Pierce (or Pearce). The Talmer family (also spelled ‘Tarmer’ and ‘Tamer’, but I’ll use ‘Talmer’ throughout), had been in The Lee for at least one prior generation, and my grandmother, Joan Talmer, was born and raised there over 100 years later. They were a poor family, in a small close-knit rural community where everyone would have known everyone else’s business.
When Fanny was just four or five, her mother died, leaving three children motherless, and the following year her father remarried to Frances Holmes, also known as Fanny. William had three more children with his second wife, including my ancestor.
It’s unlikely that Fanny received any education as a child; the first school in the village opened in the new Methodist Chapel in the 1840s. In the 1841 census, the Talmers were two of a dozen households in the hamlet of Lee Common. Fanny, 16, lived with her grandfather Thomas Talmer and 45-year-old spinster aunt Mary. Her father, step-mother and siblings are the preceding family enumerated, and probably lived next door. No occupation is listed for Fanny or her aunt. However, the same page shows that many of the women in The Lee were working as lace makers or straw plaiters, skills they could learn as children and use to help supplement the family income. It’s possible that Fanny and her aunt were in fact engaged in these cottage industries, though it seems likely that this would have been recorded as it had been for their neighbours. Unfortunately, Fanny’s grandfather died soon after the census. If Fanny had no commercial skills, this might have left her in difficult circumstances, even homeless. The paper trail next picks up in 1845 in Amersham workhouse — where Fanny, age 20-21, gave birth to an illegitimate child.
Fanny’s child, born on 16 May, was a boy whom she named Richard. There are no hints as to the father’s identity on his birth certificate, or in his entry of baptism.
A bit of background on Amersham Workhouse
The Lee was part of Amersham poor law union, which covered 111 square miles and a population of 18,000. Until 1835, paupers from The Lee went to Chesham workhouse, about five miles away, but by 1838 they had to go two miles further, to Amersham. From 1835-1838, while a new workhouse was constructed in Amersham, the Board of Guardians decided to house all male inmates in the current Amersham workhouse, and females at Chesham.1 On 23 May 1835, when elderly male inmates were loaded into carts to take them from Chesham to Amersham, a whole two miles away, it caused rioting. Locals pulled paupers from the wagons and beat up the magistrate! A detachment of the new Metropolitan Police was sent from London to restore order.2
In 1838, the new Amersham workhouse opened, an imposing Tudor-style building of red brick and flint. Paupers who entered the workhouse wore a numbered uniform and could have no personal possessions. They followed a strict timetable, and took their meals in silence. Fit inmates performed ‘harsh difficult work … at all times.’ 1 But what was the workhouse like for a woman who went there to deliver her baby?
Birth in the workhouse
Women would spend confinement (labour, childbirth and recovery) in the lying-in ward, which was supervised by the workhouse physician. A ‘nurse’ would attend the birth and the newborn child. However, ‘early nursing care in the union workhouse was invariably in the hands of female inmates … such nurses were also often drunk, with commonly prescribed spirits such as brandy either being purloined in transit to the patients or traded by their recipients in return for food or attention from their carers. Before 1863, not a single trained nurse existed in any workhouse infirmary outside London.’3
Even as late as 1898, Louisa Twining (philanthropist and workhouse reformer & member of the Twinings tea family) reported that ‘The lying-in ward … which was only a general ward without even screens, had an old inmate in it who we discovered to have an ulcerated leg and cancer of the breast; yet she did nearly everything for the women and babies, and often delivered them too. The women’s hair was not combed, it was “not lucky” to do so, and washing was at a discount. The doctor and myself could not imagine at first why the temperatures went up, and the babies nearly always got bad eyes and did badly.’4
In the opening of Oliver Twist, first published in 1837, Dickens describes Oliver’s birth in brilliantly sardonic fashion:
‘Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,—a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter. … he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once—a parish child—the orphan of a workhouse—the humble, half-starved drudge—to be cuffed and buffeted through the world—despised by all, and pitied by none.’
Unfortunately, almost no records from Amersham workhouse have survived. However, Richard was baptised two years after his birth at Amersham, not The Lee, which suggests that they stayed in the workhouse until at least 1847. The next record I have is from census night, 30 March 1851, when mother and son were once again in Amersham Workhouse. Fanny, 27, unmarried, stated she was a bonnet plait maker, while 5-year-old Richard was a scholar. It seems that Fanny had, after all, acquired skills in straw plaiting, and perhaps she and Richard had been able to return to The Lee for some time.
It’s always sad to see ancestors, or anyone, listed as paupers in a place of last resort, but Fanny’s situation was even darker than the census could reveal. Just two weeks before, Fanny had been tried at the Bucks Assizes for ‘wilful murder’ of another ‘bastard child’.
A second illegitimate child
On 2 November 1850, Fanny had delivered a second baby at Amersham workhouse, whom she named Henry. As with Richard, there was no information about Henry’s father. It’s always worth a reminder that conception was not necessarily the result of a consensual relationship. I also note that although women and men were ‘strictly segregated’ in the workhouse, that did not necessarily prevent sexual encounters. I was disturbed to read about an ex-Grenadier Guard Sergeant who had been appointed to supervise the female paupers in the Chesham Workhouse; he was dismissed in November 1835, after making one of the inmates pregnant.1 And when I reviewed the Amersham Union Minute Books at Bucks Archives, I came across another incident of the workhouse master being dismissed for making an inmate pregnant in the 1860s.
Charged with ‘wilful murder‘
On 6 January 1851, when Henry was nine weeks old, he sadly died. Fingers were pointed at Fanny, and an inquest was held at the workhouse. The outcome was published in local newspapers: ‘After a lengthened investigation, and a post-mortem examination of the body, the jury were unanimous in their verdict, which was “Wilful Murder” against the mother, Frances Talmer. The woman belongs to Lee Parish, but has lately been an inmate of the Amersham Union. She was committed on the coroner’s warrant to take her trial at the ensuing Spring Assizes.’5
Henry’s death certificate, registered the day after his death, shockingly states his cause of death in black and white as ‘Wilfully murdered by his mother Frances Talmer’:
On 9 January, Fanny was committed to Aylesbury Gaol. Another woman was committed the same day; Mary Smith from Upton-cum-Chalvey was accused of the exact same crime of ‘murder of her male bastard child.’6
When Fanny entered the gaol, she became one of 198 prisoners.7 The number of women incarcerated in the separate women’s wing is unknown. However, Fanny would have had almost no contact with other prisoners. A new prison building had opened in Aylesbury in 1847, one of dozens built across the country from 1840-60 modelled on the pioneering design of Pentonville.8 The layout of the prison was intended to support the solitary regime, which kept prisoners alone and apart from each other as much as possible, with the aim of forcing them to reflect on their crimes and mend their ways. Prisoners spent much of their day in their own cells performing gruelling, monotonous activities, especially oakum picking. This routine started at 5 am daily, and the tedium was only broken for meals (mostly of bread and gruel) and chapel9 — in which seats were arranged in such a way that prisoners could see the chaplain, but not each other.10 Fanny, a mother who had recently lost a newborn, endured this harsh environment — even worse than the workhouse — for two months. Meanwhile, I assume that Richard was alone at the workhouse. He was just 5 1/2 years old.
Leading up to the Assizes, newspapers listed the cases that would be heard. On 1 March, the Bucks Herald speculated that ‘There is every probability of the business being rather heavy, including cases of a peculiar nature; already 4 prisoners stand committed for child murder.’
The crime of infanticide
The murder of a child under 12 months of age was known legally as ‘infanticide’. It’s believed that cases of infanticide and abortion increased sharply after 1834, when the New Poor Law Act’s ‘Bastardy Clause’ made illegitimate children the sole responsibility of the mother. Poor-law authorities no longer tried to identify a father or attempt to obtain the father’s financial support, since this support was believed to have encouraged illegitimacy.11 The new law left pregnant women in a dire situation, with no financial support, and the intense stigmatisation and marginalisation faced by unmarried mothers. It’s not surprising that some women, particularly single women and domestic servants, took desperate measures. Between 1838 and 1840 there were 76 confirmed cases of infanticide in the UK (one third of all murders).12 However, the actual number was probably much larger, as coroners found it difficult to be absolutely sure that a baby’s death was intentional.
Nevertheless, newspapers also exploited and amplified these intimate tragedies: ‘sensational news reports of illicit sexual liaisons, of childbirth and grisly murder, appeared regularly in the press, naming and shaming transgressive unmarried women and framing them as a danger to society.’13 By stoking terror and outrage, I can’t help but think that newspapers helped to create a climate of moral panic and misogyny in which women were more likely to be suspected of murdering their unborn child or infant. It became, essentially, a witchhunt. The only positive aspect of the emotive coverage is that it did help to highlight the negative repercussions of the Bastardy Clause, and increase support for its repeal.
Infanticide was a felony and capital crime, which is why Fanny’s case would be heard at the Assizes rather than the Quarter Sessions. If found guilty, Fanny could potentially face the gallows. However, infanticide was viewed as so ‘peculiar’ and contrary to nature that the mother must not be in her right mind (similarly, women who mistreated older children were known as ‘unnatural mothers’). Therefore, most women who were found guilty escaped execution.14 Nevertheless, Fanny, and the other women who waited for their trials, must have felt real dread.
On 11 March 1851, at 10 am, the Bucks Lent Assizes commenced at Aylesbury, as the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Jervis, Knight, took his seat. As reported by the Bucks Herald, business opened with a proclamation against vice and immorality, read by the clerk. The Lord Chief Justice then addressed the Grand Jury of 22 men, providing an overview of the cases they would hear. ‘The calendar’, he informed them, ‘contained three cases of child murder, unfortunately an offence too frequently found in the calendars at the present time; if they were substantiated, they would call for an example to be made, in order, if possible, to prevent their recurrence. There might be doubts in the minds of the Grand Jury in those cases. There was also among them a peculiar case of an attempt on the part of a mother to strangle her child: if the attempt was proved, it was a felony under the Act of Parliament, but they must be satisfied of that fact before they found a bill: in the other cases it was necessary that they should be satisfied that the children were born alive.’15
The Crown Court opened on 12 March at 9 am precisely, with the first woman accused of willful murder of her illegitimate child — Mary Johnson, a servant. The Lord Chief Justice noted that the coroner’s report was inconsistent and did not include the names of the jury. She was duly acquitted. Next up was Mary Clements aka Mary Smith, also a servant. She had attempted to conceal her pregnancy and delivery from her employer. However, when she was found ill in bed, childbirth was suspected, and a doctor was called to examine her; he confirmed she had indeed given birth. A police officer then found the body of a child in a closet [water closet, i.e., toilet] with a piece of bed lace wrapped tightly around its neck. The doctor who had examined the baby’s body gave his testimony; it was his opinion that the infant had been born alive, and that the lace had caused the child’s death. However, the doctor who had examined Mary Smith was also called to give evidence. It was his opinion that ‘she had gone only six or seven months’. He could not swear that the baby was born alive, and thought it possible that Mary had used the piece of lace to help deliver her own baby.
The Lord Chief Justice addressed the jury, pointing out that there was no evidence of murder. However, he reminded them that they could find her guilty of another crime, ‘concealment of birth’. This offence was first formally enacted in 1803, and was only applicable to unmarried women. It was effectively a way to punish a woman for suspected foul play, when murder couldn’t be proven.16 However, in these circumstances the baby could certainly have died from natural causes, as many legitimate babies sadly did. In Mary’s case, ‘The jury accordingly acquitted the prisoner of the charge of murder, but found her guilty of concealment of birth. … The Lord Chief Justice addressed the prisoner very feelingly, remarking upon the frequency of the offence in this locality, and observed that it was absolutely necessary that an example should be made, and sentenced the prisoner to be imprisoned with hard labour for six months.’
Next, it was Fanny Talmer’s turn to face the judge and jury. I have recently reviewed the surviving records from this case, consisting of an indictment, and the coroner’s inquest from which the indictment was drawn. I was shocked by the language used, which was positively medieval:
‘The Jurors for our Lady the Queen upon their oath present that Frances Talmer late of the Parish of Amersham in the County of Buckinghamshire Singlewoman not having the fear of God before her eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigations of the Devil … did Kill and Murder against the Peace of our said Lady the Queen her Crown and Dignity.’
The same language about the influence of the devil was also used in the indictments against Mary Johnson and Mary Smith. It’s startling that in what was then one of the most industrially advanced countries in the world, a court of law was still steeped in superstition.
Both the indictment and inquest stated that Fanny … ‘feloniously wilfully and of her malice aforethought’ violently clasped, forced, pressed and squeezed this child of a ‘tender age’ with both of her arms, and violently shook him several times causing a ‘mortal congestion of the left lung and right lobe of the liver.’ The inquest also reported that the infant ‘did languish and languishing did live’ until the following day, when he died. It made for upsetting reading, not only to hear about the suffering of baby Henry, but also to read the inquest jury’s unequivocal conclusion that Fanny had murdered her child.
Newspaper reports of the trial show that Fanny appeared in court without any legal representation. They also included witness testimonies, which shed much more light on the circumstances of this tragedy:
The witnesses described Fanny’s attempts, and sometimes refusals, to nurse her baby. Another woman in the workhouse had started to feed him (perhaps with gruel?) from around 1-5 January. Fanny had tried again to nurse him on the 5th. But that afternoon, three women saw her shaking her baby. One of them, Mary Hazel, had two illegitimate children of her own. Mary Cox, a widow in her thirties with the workhouse position of ‘Pauper Nurse’, who had assisted Fanny with her labour and delivery, reported that as Fanny shook her baby she said “it should not suck her for she would shake its inside out.” Henry died early the following morning, and was found to have injuries to his lungs and liver.
I can’t possibly know whether Fanny intended to injure her baby at that moment. However, I think it very likely that she was overwrought with not only post-natal physical and mental exhaustion, and the difficulties of feeding a newborn — within the stark confines of the workhouse — but also the stressful prospect of caring for a second illegitimate child. She desperately needed help.
A public health nurse who read this story provided expert insights into the physical and emotional effects of the situation faced by both Fanny and her child: ‘I wondered if she shook baby out of frustration with feeding (very plausible given the conditions these women were in). Problems with breastfeeding and feeding him gruel could have led to failure to thrive; gut and organs are not mature enough to cope with solids, risk of choking would be high, and baby would quickly become nutritionally deficient, dehydrated and at high risk of infections. … Additionally, PTSD as a result of birth is common, and also as a result of conception after rape, which can cause attachment and bonding difficulties, breastfeeding difficulties and post natal depression. It seems that baby had a number of high risk factors going on.’
Returning to the newspaper report, I was confused to see that Fanny’s indictment was in fact manslaughter. It seems that that in spite of the coroner’s jury accusing Fanny of murder, a grand jury at a second inquest had not found there to be sufficient evidence to support that charge, and instead charged her with manslaughter. The judge summed up the case by stating that in his opinion, it was ‘wilful murder’, and that the other juries hadn’t done their jobs properly. However, he added that the jury at the Assizes should only look at the evidence presented. Evidently, the jury did not find the evidence to be robust enough for a conviction even of manslaughter. They found Fanny ‘Not Guilty’.
Fanny’s case was immediately followed by that of Ann Addison, another servant, charged with attempting to suffocate and strangle her child. Like Mary Johnson, Ann had concealed her birth until she went into labour, and a child was found in a closet with a cord around its neck. The indictment charged her with ‘attempt to choke suffocate and drown … the male child … by casting and throwing [him] into and amongst the soil waters and filth then being in a certain Privy.’ However, someone retrieved the infant from the closet, which fed into a ditch, and the child survived. Ann was found to have several items of baby clothing in a box, suggesting she intended to keep her baby, and she stated that the muslin around his neck was used ‘to release her of her pain.’ Ann, the only woman accused of infanticide who was not deemed to have been seduced by the devil, was found ‘Not Guilty’.
After the trial
Very surprisingly, four years later, Fanny — mother of an illegitimate 10-year-old child and a once-suspected murderer of another illegitimate child — married. Her husband, George Wright, was a farm labourer four years her junior. However, on 3 June 1859, after only three years of marriage, Fanny died at Great Missenden (between Amersham and The Lee). She was 36 and had suffered with phthisis (TB) for three months. Fanny and George don’t seem to have had any children.
I don’t know whether Richard Talmer, Fanny’s surviving son, ever lived with his mother and her husband, because Fanny and George’s short marriage took place between two censuses. However, it doesn’t seem that George took any responsibility for his step-son after Fanny’s death. On census night 1861, George was living alone in Great Missenden, while Richard, by then a teenager, was again an inmate in Amersham workhouse. And soon, he too would be featured in the newspapers, charged with a serious and ‘unnatural’ crime.
In Part 1 I shared the tragic story of Anne Benwell, whose dress caught fire in 1819, causing fatal injuries. In Part 2, we move from the Regency to the Victorian era, looking at three more accidents in which dresses caught fire.
On 15 November 1858, two daughters of the Earl of Bradford, Lucy (b. 1826) and Charlotte (b. 1827), pioneers in photography, were involved in a ‘CALAMITOUS ACCIDENT BY BURNING’ in their home, Weston Park, Staffordshire. The two ladies were talking with their mother and sister in the drawing room, when one of their dresses ‘came in contact with the fire, and was immediately in flames.’ (another account states that a candle, not a fireplace, was responsible). One report states that Charlotte caught fire first and rushed into the hall, followed by Lady Lucy, ‘who, in her vain attempt to help her, likewise caught fire.’ Another version claimed that Lucy’s dress had been set alight first. Whichever was accurate, the ‘terror-stricken ladies’ were ‘fearfully burned’ and tragically did not survive the ordeal; Charlotte died on 26 November and Lucy on 10 December.
Ladies Lucy and Charlotte died when crinolines were in vogue (see Part 1). However, the only detail I have seen about their clothing when the accident occurred, is in the Wikipedia entry for the family which states that their dresses were made of cotton. Photographs taken by Lucy, in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, give us a sense of the clothing worn in the family at that time. Skirts were certainly very full, but there are no huge crinolines to be seen.
Lady Charlotte’s diaries from 1846-1857 are available to peruse online at http://ladycharlottesdiaries.co.uk/. Here I learned that only ten years before Charlotte and Lucy died, their grandmother, Lady Elizabeth Moncreiffe (nee Ramsay), also died due to her clothes catching alight, at the age of 78. Lady Charlotte recorded the event in her diary on 3 June 1848 as follows:
‘When we came home we were much alarmed to hear that Grandmama had set herself on fire & was much burnt. We drove immediately to her lodgings & learnt then the particulars from Lucy & Miss Baker who had gone there immediately on hearing it. She did it about 9 ock. while arranging some flowers in a glass, she set fire to her cap & collar, & the curtains of the room. Her neck & hands are dreadfully burnt & the side of her face. Mr. Scannell (?) had been sent for (Mr. Hunter being out) but knowing nothing of him Papa went to Mr. Greufell’s to ask him if he knew anyting about him. He was spoken highly of, so no one else was sent for tonight.‘
Over the next several days, Charlotte wrote that her grandmama was ‘going on well’, but on 17 June, ‘We were sent for to go to Grandmama who was sinking rapidly. We sent to Louisa Moncreiffe immediately who came directly & Tom followed shortly. Newport also went with us there. She died about 1/2 past 1 having been totally unconscious of anything all the time we were with her & for some hours before.’
In the week following Lucy & Charlotte’s deaths, The Medical Times issued a statement that women’s dresses ought to be made ‘blaze proof’. Other readers wrote to their newspaper with their own advice, like L.J., who advised, ‘SIR – if ladies would always keep the wire fireguard on their fire bars, we should hear no more of burnings to death, arriving from collision of their light dresses with live coals or flame.’
The tragic deaths of Ladies Lucy and Charlotte Bridgman and Lady Moncreiffe made national news and inspired efforts and ideas to reduce the risks. However, accidents continued to happen, and papers continued to report them. In 1873, a local Bucks paper reported on an accident that involved my 3x great grandmother, Eliza Maultby.
Eliza Maultby (nee Randall) and Thomas Maultby were married in 1865, and in 1867, after the sad loss of their first child, they moved to Newport Pagnell in Bucks, where Thomas took up the post of Station Master at the new station. By 1873, they had four children aged five and under, the oldest being my great-great grandmother. Thomas soon became manager of the Newport Pagnell Railway Company, and newspaper reports indicate it was a very busy job which also required him to travel. On the evening of 30 September 1873, Thomas was out, perhaps working, leaving Eliza, then 35 years old, at home to care for their children. Eliza had just tucked in her youngest child, Richard, who was almost two. Suddenly, Richard called her attention to a light in the room. In the next few minutes, Eliza’s quick reactions saved her and her children’s lives:
NARROW ESCAPE FROM FIRE
A narrow escape from a serious fire occurred on Tuesday evening last, on the premises of Mr. Thomas Maultby railway manager, who was from home at the time. Shortly after Mrs. Maultby had put her youngest child to bed her attention was called by the child to a light in the room, and on going there she found the window curtains and blind in a blaze. She set to work to arrest the progress of the fire, which she succeeded in doing, but not before her own dress had caught. She however had the presence of mind to wrap herself up tightly, and thus preventing further danger, although her hands were considerably burned. the curtains and blind were completely destroyed, the dressing table was charred, and the carpet scorched. It was very fortunate that the fire was discovered so opportunely, or the consequences would no doubt have been serious, if not disastrous. It is conjectured that it was caused by a spark from the candle used by Mrs. Maultby in putting the child to bed.
Croydon’s Weekly Standard (a Newport Pagnell paper), 4 October 1873
Sadly, I have no photographs of Eliza, and it’s difficult to know what kind of dress a lower middle class woman would have been wearing at home on an autumn evening. The 1870s was a bustle era, but a house dress would surely have been simpler and more practical. I imagine her looking much like Harry French’s 1870 engraving for Hard Times, included at the top of this blog. Perhaps she wore a shawl or short jacket for warmth. To extinguish the flames, she may have wrapped herself in more curtains and drapes, bed linens, or simply folds of her skirt that had not yet caught fire. By keeping her wits about her, and possibly following advice she had one day read in a newspaper, she prevented a tragedy that was far too common. My brave 3x great grandmother may have had burn scars on her hands for the rest of her life, but she went on to live another 44 years, until 1917. Tragically, though, her son Richard was ultimately killed by another type of fire – enemy fire in the First World War.
Blazing crinolines have become the stuff of legend, and even jokes – from Punch in the 1800s, to favourite fodder for online historical entertainment articles. However, throughout the 19th century, women’s clothing, in a variety of styles, and a naturally hazardous environment, put them at risk of fire-related injuries and death. Learning about accidents that befell my own ancestors has helped me understand just how dangerous it could be to simply go about your life in a dress.
Have you come across any stories of women whose clothing caught fire? I’d be very interested to hear about them. As I have no expertise whatsoever in fashion history, I would also love to hear from any fashion historians on how styles and fabric preferences could have contributed to Anne Benwell and Eliza Maultby’s accidents.
Harry French wood engraving 1870, Illustration for Dickens’s Hard Times | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
The ubiquity of naked flames and open fires prior to the early 20th century presented a continual hazard to people in all walks of life. To keep warm, and to follow fashions, people wore many layers of clothing, which added to the danger. Certain fabrics, such as muslin and flannellette, were particularly flammable. Infants and young children were most at risk, as described in a blog by Dr Vicky Holmes. Women, who typically spent much of their time in the home close to candles and hearths, and who wore long skirts and shawls, were also at high risk of fire-related accidents.
A number of blogs, articles and even whole books have been written about the dangers of fire to Victorian women. Many of them focus on the crinoline, a fashion of the late 1850s. The crinoline was a petticoat cage which gave skirts a bell shape; at their widest, crinolines reached a circumference of six yards. In 1860, at the height of crinoline chic, The Lancet reported that 3000 women had been killed in the UK due to their dresses catching fire. Famous victims included Fanny Longfellow, wife of the poet, and two half sisters of Oscar Wilde. However, women’s clothing and primarily domestic environment put them at risk throughout the 19th century, and indeed in earlier centuries.
In this two-part blog I’ll look at four specific incidents in which women’s clothing caught fire in the 1800s, including two from my own family.
The first accident occurred in 1818, fatally injuring Anne Benwell (a sister of my husband’s 4x great grandmother). It would be a disservice to her to only describe the incident that caused her death, so I’d like to first tell you a little more about her life and family.
Anne, b. c1788, came from a family of many independent and mostly very long-lived women. Her father William Benwell, an eminent Oxford university tailor and senior city council member, had passed away suddenly in 1802. Anne’s mother Sarah (nee Tredwell) continued the family business for several years while raising six surviving children, before moving with her oldest daughter, Elizabeth, to Canal Place in Camberwell. Sarah remained a widow and lived to be 98, while Elizabeth stayed single until her death at 63. The second eldest daughter, Sarah, married Edward ‘William’ Saword, Clerk of Greenwich Hospital. William and Sarah Saword were my husband’s 4x great grandparents. After William died in 1815 aged 42, possibly at sea, Sarah also remained a widow, and lived to be 89. Mary, the third daughter, married Thomas Turner, a King’s Consul. The family lived in Ragusa on the Adriatic Sea and then Panama, until Thomas died prematurely of cholera in his fifties. Mary did not remarry, and lived to be 88. Surviving evidence from these women shows that they were literate, managed their own money (e.g., making investments and purchasing property), were charitable and well-connected, and possessed skills expected from ladies of their class, such as playing the piano (Elizabeth bequeathed her pianoforte to her sister Sarah). Anne Benwell was the youngest daughter in the family. In 1818 she was 29, single, and living in Holborn, London – seeming set to be another independent and long-lived woman.
Elizabeth, Sarah, Mary and Anne Benwell also had two brothers. The eldest son and eldest child, Thomas, left Britain in 1812 to fight in the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and America. The youngest son and child, Charles Benwell, was involved in overseas trade.
Anne’s activities and whereabouts as a young woman are largely unknown to me. In 1811 she was a witness to her sister Mary’s marriage and in 1812 she witnessed a contract for the exchange of property from her brother Thomas to their mother Sarah and sister Elizabeth, drawn up hurriedly before he departed for War. The document was prepared by George Hester & John Brooks. The Hesters were family friends and relations.
In 1818, Thomas returned to England and was indentured for seven years to the same George Hester, of High Holborn, London – ‘one of the attorneys of his Majesty’s Court of King’s Bench at Westminster and a Solicitor of the High Court of Chancery’ and his clerk John Brooks … for the full term of seven years in the practice of an attorney and Solicitor’, thus becoming an ‘Articled Clerk.’ Anne Benwell witnessed the Article of Clerkship (contract).
Anne’s address at that time was 56 High Holborn, which was directly opposite Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In 1819 Messrs Hester & Brooks were listed at the same address. Although I have no evidence that Thomas lived there too, it seems fair to assume that Thomas was living on site with his mentors in 1818, and that Anne was living him. Was she there to support Thomas, or was he there to chaperone her? Perhaps Anne lived with him but had her own occupation, for example as a governess for a local family.
(As a side note, architect and art collector Sir John Soane lived right around the corner, at 12-13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, having moved in five years earlier. As his former house has long been one of my favourite museums, I do like to think that Anne and Thomas may have known him!)
One day in May 1818, three months after witnessing Thomas’s indenture, Anne’s clothes caught fire. I have no details about how, where or at what time of day it occurred. Was she perhaps sitting reading or embroidering by the fire, dancing at a party, or asleep in bed? Though it may seem frivolous to think about fashions in this context, Anne comes to life in my mind when I picture her in a typical dress of the Regency era – a single shift (rather than separate skirt and bodice), high-waisted, loose and flowing, following classical ideals. Day attire called for a high collar and long sleeves, even in the summer, while in the evening the decolletage and arms were exposed. At night she may have worn a full-length cotton nightdress and, for decency on leaving her bed, a silk robe. I can picture Anne as an educated and independent young woman in Regency London, but I can also imagine how easily her long, flowing dress could have caught fire through direct contact with a flame, or a stray ember, and how difficult it would have been to remove it.
Anne was very badly burned, but did not die immediately. Who found her first? Perhaps Thomas? Was a doctor quickly called for, and how were her burns treated? She probably received ointments and pain relief. However, prior to antibiotics, skin grafts and other medical advances, people who sustained burns extending over a high portion of their body were unlikely to survive.
In 1822, this advice on the treatment of burns and scalds was printed in the Sheffield Independent in response to ‘the melancholy account of the death of Miss Eastwood*, by her clothes taking fire’. The recommendation was first for a large quantity of vinegar to be thrown over the clothes without any being removed. Any broken blisters should afterwards be ‘dressed with ointment usually used for burns’. They also wished all children, especially girls, to know that ‘if their clothes should catch fire, they must throw themselves on the ground, and endeavour to smother the flames by rolling over’. They cite a case in which a woman’s life was saved by her fainting from terror, which extinguished the flames, and only her muslin dress was destroyed.
*This was 19-year-old Margaret Eastwood, who died in Dublin three days after her apron ignited while taking a tea-kettle off the kitchen fire:
Poor Anne Benwell endured her injuries for 17 days before dying on 7 June. Her death was reported across the country among viscounts and colonels.
However, in Jackson’s Oxford Journal (13 June 1818), in her home town, she was more than just a name and a horrible death. Her short obituary recalled her ‘truly amiable disposition and sweetness of temper’ and praised the ‘unexampled patience and fortitude‘ with which she ‘bore the most acute sufferings’. Although these sentiments reflect the style of the period, I find them very moving.
It’s impossible for me to know what Anne had hoped and planned for her future life. Was she like Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (published in 1817) – prevented from marriage due to issues of money and suitability? Or was she independently-minded with no interest in marriage? In my mind’s-eye, she was spirited, intelligent, kind, and respected, a woman who would, given more time, have made a mark on the world.
Anne’s burial was recorded in the register of St Andrew’s, Holborn on 13 June 1818. The church’s primary burial ground at that time was nearly a mile away in what is now St Andrew’s Gardens, a public park. I plan to visit when I can, and search for Anne Benwell among the remaining (re-sited) headstones and chest tombs.
Unfortunately, Anne’s untimely death was soon followed by another tragic accident in the Benwell family, but this time it was caused by water, rather than fire. Just seven months after Anne’s death, the youngest sibling Charles was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, travelling on the Calcutta. As he and ten crew boarded the ship, the boat was upset, and although he was an excellent swimmer, he was drowned. He was 20 years old. A passenger sent news of his death to England via a letter, ‘in which he is spoken of in the highest terms, for his talents, activity, and kindness of heart, which had caused the strongest attachment to him on the part of the whole of the sailors. It is some consolation to his afflicted relations, to remember that his life, though thus early closed, was passed in active and useful exertion; that his deep sense of religion was shown by his exemplary morals, and that his heart was influenced by every noble, manly, and generous sentiment.’ (Oxford University & City Herald, 15 May 1819)
In Part 2, we leave the Regency era and move forward to the 1840s-50s, when two generations of a noble family met with fiery accidents, and finally to 1873, when my 3x great grandmother, tucking her child into bed, suddenly found herself on fire.
I’m very fond of orchids. When I moved from California to Oxfordshire three years ago I had to leave my orchids behind, but I’ve already acquired quite a collection. I wasn’t sure how happy they would be in this cooler climate but I’m pleased to report that, thanks to some water and plant food, some have already re-flowered. However, I know very little about these varied and beautiful tropical flowers.
We can easily buy them from supermarkets these days, and Phalaenopsis (moth orchids) are now the UK’s most popular indoor flowering plant, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries they were rare and luxurious, and highly fashionable among the few who could afford them. Queen Victoria was a major collector, as was Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, who was described by Queen Victoria as ‘an excellent gardener and a good botanist.’ Rothschild came from an Austrian banking family, but he became a British subject and from 1874 he owned an estate near Aylesbury, known as Waddesdon Manor (now one of the National Trust‘s most visited properties). By 1885, Waddesdon Manor’s many glasshouses were filled with orchids. The majority of these plants came from ‘orchid King’ Frederick Sander.
Henry Frederick Conrad Sander was a German immigrant who came to England in 1865 aged 18, reputedly with just half a crown in his pocket. He found work as an assistant (garden) nurseryman in Kent, and married into a wealthy family. In 1875, he and his wife Elizabeth (nee Fearnley) purchased a seed merchant’s premises in St Albans, Hertfordshire – my home town. By the time they had set up business, Sander was a colleague and possibly friend of fellow German, Professor Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach. The leading orchidologist in Europe, Reichenbach was responsible for classifying specimens of orchid that had been ‘discovered’ by European collectors. Soon after opening his plant nursery, Sander began employing European plant hunters to find new species of orchid; if the delicate specimens survived the voyage to St Albans, Sander proved to have the considerable skill required to propagate them, and became a leading orchid supplier.
Ferdinand Rothschild, a politician and philanthropist, was one of Sander’s most prestigious patrons, buying large quantities of orchids for his glasshouses at Waddesdon as well as his London home, and even as decorations for weekend parties. Sander named more than one species of orchid after the Baron, including Paphiopedilum rothschildianum, or ‘Rothschild’s Slipper Orchid’, known (like Sander himself) as ‘the king of orchids’. This orchid, collected in 1887, came from Borneo, though Sander & Sons managed to keep its true origin a secret for 50 years!
In 1888, Sander published the first of four volumes of the Reichenbachia – named after Reichenbach – which featured 200 life-size illustrations of orchids. Vol. 1 was dedicated to Queen Victoria. In 1889, Sander was one of a handful of orchid experts at the inaugural meeting of the RHS Orchid Committee, which continues to this day (follow them on Twitter @orchidcommittee). On 19 Aug 1893, the Herts Advertiser published a delightful interview with Sander, ‘A Day Amongst the Orchids’, calling him ‘the celebrated, and, perhaps the greatest, grower of orchids in the whole world.’ ‘A visit to his establishment … is a perfect dream of delight. … One imagines oneself in the tropics, in the high woods of Trinidad, in the virgin forests of South America, or the weirdly beautiful, moss-grown, untrodden morasses of Sumatra or Java.’ I highly recommend a read of the full article if you have access to the British Newspaper Archive.
Around the turn of the century, my great grand-uncle, Alfred John Munday, a young gardener from a working class family, entered the tropical world of Sander & Sons.
Alfred was born in Aylesbury on 13 August 1883. He was the third of 13 children, and also had three older half-siblings. His father Joseph Munday, my 2x great grandfather, was a dealer and then beer house keeper, who also did some hawking on the side. When the 1891 census was taken, Alfred was 8 years old, and his family of eight shared their lodgings at the Half Moon, Castle St. with four men and four women, all described as ‘tramps.’ The Munday children were not described as ‘scholars’. However, Alfred did receive an education, at St Mary’s school – a ‘National School’ that provided elementary education, within a C of E framework, to poorer children. In 1901, Alfred, aged 17, was still living at the family pub & boarding house, but was now working as a ‘Gardener Domestic’.
Until recently, Alfred’s whereabouts after 1901 were unknown to me. Some of his siblings emigrated to Ontario, and I wondered if he had also gone abroad. However, an obituary of 1947 revealed that Alfred had been in charge of the Orchid House at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for 36 years. Alfred was ‘an expert orchid grower, and well-known in horticultural circles in Edinburgh.’ This was a very surprising career for someone from Alfred’s background, and I was keen to find out more.
The obituary describes Alfred as having begun his career ‘as a horticulturalist at Baron Rothschild’s gardens, Eythrope’. The Eythrope estate, next door to Waddesdon Manor, was in fact owned by Alice de Rothschild, the unmarried sister and companion of Ferdinand. ‘Miss Alice’ built a house there in 1875 designed as a day pavilion (she still slept at Waddesdon Manor) and created a park and garden over the existing 18th century landscape park. The house and gardens are both separately Grade II listed. The Eythrope estate is still owned by the family and used as a private home, though tours of the walled garden have been offered since 2019.
Alfred’s obituary suggests that his family and home town was particularly proud of the Rothschild connection. However, an entry in the Dictionary Of British & Irish Botanists And Horticulturists (Edited by Ray Desmond, CRC Press, 1994) revealed that Alfred had also worked for Sander & Sons.
Since no employment records from Waddesdon/Eythrope have survived, and I have been unable to locate any archive for Sander & Sons, the timeline and responsibilities of his early career is unclear. However, Ellen Higgs, Assistant Archivist & Records Manager at Waddesdon Manor, has given me some insights into changes at Eythrope and Waddesdon that might have happened during his time there.
If Alfred began work at Eythrope in his early teens, he may have met Baron Ferdinand, but in 1898, when Alfred was 15, the Baron died suddenly ‘in his valet’s arms’. Alice then inherited Waddesdon estate. In developing the gardens at Eythrope, Alice worked in very close collaboration with Edward Gibbs (1853-1917), her head gardener & land steward, who would have been Alfred’s boss. Edward Hamilton, Gladstone’s secretary in 1898, described Eythrope as ‘the most magnificent horticultural toy seen anywhere. [Miss Alice] has consummate good taste and great knowledge of plants and flowers.’ Furthermore, Alice was not just giving out instructions; she was known to carry a weeding tool with her at all times, just in case she saw something out of place!
Eythrope’s gardens were extensively reviewed in The Journal of Horticulture, 26 Jun 1890 (reproduced in The Bucks Gardener, Issue 23, Spring 2006). Highlights included the natural river, which could be journeyed by boat from the garden steps to a little ‘old English’ tea house, Italian and Dutch gardens, a Mexican garden, and three glass houses – each 100 feet long – made by Messrs. Halliday and Company of Manchester, who also made the glass houses at Waddesdon. One of the three structures was devoted to orchids:
‘One is in three divisions for orchids, a grand genuine collection being grown, but a bank of Odontoglossum Verilliarium is wonderfully fine, about a hundred and fifty strong plants being in flower, some with ten racemes each, the flowers large, and varying from white to the deepest rose. Upon the other side of the house Epedendrum Vitellinum is flowering well, and contrasts markedly with the Odontoglossums.‘
However, she didn’t share Ferdinand’s fierce passion for orchids, and within three months of his death, had sold off the majority of his orchid collection. However, it seems plausible that Alfred worked with orchids at Eythrope, and that the connection between the Rothschilds and Frederick Sander was been the catalyst for him to move to St Albans to start working for Sander & Sons.
In late 1910, Alfred Munday married Elizabeth Kate Marshall. Though she was also from Aylesbury, she was employed as a servant in London, and they married in Kensington. Within a few weeks, the couple moved to Edinburgh, and Alfred took up a position in the Royal Botanic Garden’s Glass Department, starting on 2 Jan 1911. The vast majority of staff were Probationer Gardeners, but Alfred started work as a Gardener, and he must have already acquired extensive expertise in orchids, as he was immediately placed in charge of RBGE’s orchid collection.
Three months later, Alfred and Elizabeth were living at 11, Canon St, in Edinburgh’s Canonmills. A mere 5-minute walk across the Waters of Leith would take Alfred to the corner of the Botanic Garden.
Thanks to the very generous assistance of Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Archivist Leonie Paterson, I have been able to learn much more about Alfred’s responsibilities and contributions.
Alfred’s day-to-day work would have involved the physical graft of any gardening job, but Alfred was working in breathtaking surroundings, including two early Victorian palm houses of record-breaking heights. He was also a specialised collector and horticulturalist, responsible for bringing new species to Edinburgh, and creating some of his own hybrids. In 1914 he raised the award-winning hybrid Aerio-Vanda Mundayi. According to an article on Orchid Hybrids, ‘Producing hybrid flowers from orchids is both relatively easy and relatively difficult. The plants themselves readily cross with other orchid species and genera (in many cases), making it especially easy to come up with wonderful new combinations. Yet as a rule, producing orchids from seed is a difficult and specialized task, whether you’re hybridizing or not. Orchid seeds are tiny, almost microscopic, and must be raised in sterile flasks on a sterile substrate. An orchid seed-raising operation looks far more like a pharmaceutical lab, with its rows of sealed flasks filled with tiny seedlings than a typical greenhouse.’
Because most gardeners at the RBGE were probationers who left after three years of training, a Guild was set up in 1913 to help staff and alumni stay in touch and to ‘promote social intercourse between its members.’ The Guild published regular journals, and Alfred is mentioned throughout in staff lists like this one from 1914:
In 1914, Alfred was about 30 years old and his work seemed to be literally flourishing. However, after only three years at RBGE, war broke out. Alfred enlisted as a Private with the 5th Royal Scots on 31 Aug 1914, just over three weeks after the first call for volunteers. As a Buckinghamshire man, he must have been a rarity in the regiment. According to theroyalscots.co.uk, the 1/5th battalion was mobilised in Edinburgh in August 1914 and initially employed on coastal defence duties in Scotland. They took part in the Gallipoli campaign from April to December 1915, moved to Egypt in January 1916 and then to France in March. They were amalgamated with the 1/6th Battalion in France in July 1916. Records on Alfred show that as well as serving in Egypt, he saw action in Flanders.
The RBGE website honours the men in its staff who fought in WW1. Of about 190 men, 73 joined the forces, and 1/4 of those didn’t return. During the four years of war, it must have been a difficult time for Alfred’s wife, Elizabeth, and I wonder if she returned to her family in Bucks, or perhaps, since she had no children, she took on work in Edinburgh as a servant, or helped in another way with the war effort at home. Finally, Alfred returned to Scotland, and returned to his work.
One of Alfred’s colleagues was Harry Bryce, and a collection of Harry’s photographs is in the RBGE Archives. Thanks to Harry’s legacy I was thrilled to see Alfred for the first time, in three photographs of him at work. In the first photo, Alfred is on the far right of the Horticultural Glass Department, 1920. They are clearly in their Sunday best! The second image shows the men in their work clothes the same year. Alfred is again on the far right, with Harry three to his left. The third image shows a group of staff in 1929, this time labelled with ‘Alf Munday’ standing the second from the left. All photos are reproduced here courtesy of the Archives, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
In 1921, Alfred and Elizabeth had a daughter, Ellen Kathleen, who was known as Kathleen. As far as I know, Kathleen was their only child. I was very touched to learn that Alfred named an orchid after his daughter; Cymbidium Kathleen Munday was registered with the Royal Horticultural Society in 1945.
Kathleen Munday has not been grown at RBGE for at least 50 years, but the RGBE’s orchid specialist, Bruce Robertson, pointed out that a number of orchids growing there now are more than 100 years old. A blog post about these centenarian orchids shows that a large number of them came from Sander & Sons between 1910-1914, and it seems very likely to me that they were introduced by my ancestor.
The RBGE holds an archival collection of glass plate negatives of plant portraits taken between 1900-1949 by Robert Moyes Adam. Among them are images of cymbidium hybrids that must have been grown by Alfred, or under his watch. Some photographs show plants in the orchid houses, while other images, like the first below, were staged studio shots; Adam would bury pot plants in a ‘pit’ to make them look like they were growing. There’s something rather dreamy about seeing orchids in sepia tones, don’t you think? The fourth image here shows a cymbidium orchid ‘family tree’. (I now have Kathleen Munday in my Ancestry tree AND I’ve found an online tree for the Kathleen Munday orchid; I’m thinking that combining my interests in genealogy and love of orchids might make orchid hybridisation a perfect new hobby (perhaps when I retire!))
1/1CV20, Lycaste edinensis (hybrid- Lycaste macrophylla alba x L. cruenta), 20 June 1932, by Robert Moyes Adam
1/1EG42, collection of Cymbidium hybrids in flower, Orchid House, RBGE, 19 February, 1940 by Robert Moyes Adam
1/2FC48, Cymbidiums in flower, Orchid House, 17 March 1942, Robert Moyes Adam
1/1EH07, Cymbidium hybrids, parents and offspring, 22 March 1940, Robert Moyes Adam
By the 1920s, Alfred was a member of the RBGE Guild’s Committee. The Garden’s international connections are demonstrated by the presence of overseas committee members in almost every continent.
Alfred John Munday died of heart failure on 4 April 1947, at 63 years of age. Researching Alfred has been my first foray into Scottish civil documents, and I must say that I am impressed by the amount of detail included in his death certificate, which includes his wife’s name and maiden name and his parents’ names and occupations. I’m rather jealous of people with Scots ancestry!
The Journal of the RBGE Guild printed a full page obituary, written by RBGE Curator Roland Edgar Cooper, which detailed Alfred Munday’s many achievements. Cooper remarked of the garden’s orchid collection that the ‘extensive range of rare species and their magnificent condition bears testimony to his great ability’ and he noted that ‘Mr Munday also indulged in a certain amount of hybridising.’
Cooper ended with this stirring eulogy: ‘The generations of student gardeners who passed through the garden during his thirty-six years’ service will join his more recent colleagues in mourning his departure, and everyone who knows the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh – and they are in every corner of the world – will endorse his fine and enduring contribution to it.’
At RBGE today, orchids share space with cycads in a glasshouse that post-dates Alfred’s time. The glasshouse is open to the public in normal times. A 2005 article from the RBGE website describes orchids as ‘one of the most sophisticated and diverse groups of flowering plants, with around 35,000 species. If you look around this glasshouse you will see some of the range of diversity displayed by this group, flowers can be almost any colour, size and shape. The interactions between some orchids and their pollinator can be very complex, with some mimicking their insect pollinator in shape, colour and scent. Most orchids are epiphytes (they grow on trees and other plants) and this makes them vulnerable as the forests they live in are destroyed.’ I do hope to visit in the future.
Alfred’s family are, so far, my only Scottish relations. Alf’s wife Elizabeth passed away in Edinburgh in 1971. Their daughter Kathleen married Francis Cooper Macpherson in 1951, but sadly Francis died in 1965. Kathleen lived another 50 years; she died at the age of 96 in 2017, and her funeral service was held just a few minutes’ walk from the Botanic Garden. It is a shame I was not able to meet my grandmother’s cousin and ask her if she ever the saw the orchid that was named after her.
The same year that Kathleen passed away, a local history group in St Albans restored the grave of Alfred’s employer Frederick Sander, who died in 1920. Just ten days after Kathleen was laid to rest in Edinburgh, a commemorative event in St Albans attended by Sander’s descendants “was a unique opportunity to celebrate the life, legacy and extraordinary achievements of Fredrick Sander, who, for many decades, turned St Albans into the centre of the orchid world.” As part of the celebrations, an excellent online exhibition was created about Sander and the Victorian obsession for orchids.
It’s been a pleasure to learn more about my great grand-uncle Alfred Munday, who like Sander came from humble beginnings and established himself as a highly respected expert on orchids. I’ve also enjoyed learning how the plants that bring a touch of the exotic to my English window sills first came to the UK. Orchids were once internationally prized treasures that fuelled remote expeditions, were an expensive passion of the upper classes, and turned an immigrant into a ‘king’.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like James Benwell – a Humble Man of Science. Benwell worked as a gardener at the Oxford Botanic Garden for nearly 40 years during the Regency period. He was, ‘although uneducated, a very intelligent man, and his accurate knowledge of British Plants, and of their localities in the vicinity of Oxford, and a singular talent for observation in every branch of Natural History, rendered his services highly valuable.’
I don’t think you can use ‘Bucks’ as an adjective, but if you could, I would say I am VERY Bucks! At least, my DNA is! I wasn’t born in Buckinghamshire (England) and have never lived there, but my parents were born and raised there, and met and married there. Three of my grandparents were born in Bucks, as were six of my great grandparents, 13 of my 2x great grandparents, and at least 21 of my 3x great grandparents – that’s ⅔ Bucks! (And most of the rest were born in neighbouring counties!)
When I first started researching my family history at the age of 10, my mum would take me and my sister to the Bucks Archives in the school holidays, and that’s when I first learned about a wonderful document in their collection: the returns of the Buckinghamshire Posse Comitatus of 1798. Back then, I could only trace a few of my Bucks lines – my grandparents’ names – but I recently revisited the posse comitatus armed with a long list of names to see how many of my ancestors I could find. This project uncovered some potential ‘new’ ancestors but also prompted me to re-examine some of my prior research.
What is the posse comitatus?
A transcription of the document published by the Buckinghamshire Record Society is available online as a free PDF download, and the extensive introduction by Ian F. W. Beckett (1985) is the best way to learn about the detailed history and contents of this document. However, here’s my very potted overview:
In 1798, Britain was five years into a war with revolutionary France, and was facing increasing challenges to sufficiently staff both the cavalries and the domestic militias who were deployed to maintain peace and order at home. By 1797 there were calls throughout the country to raise a ‘posse comitatus’ (‘force of the county’) – a group of private citizens who could defend their county from lawlessness. In February of 1798, instructions were issued to Bucks bailiffs, constables and other keepers of the peace to take a register of all able-bodied men between the ages of 15 and 60 who were not already serving with the military, and also to provide data on the numbers of wagons, carts, horses and mills. Clergymen were enlisted to assist with the returns (completed surveys), which were due back to the Sheriff within a month. Although many other English and Welsh counties also took registers for a posse comitatus, and a few partial records have survived (see Appendix 1 in the PDF), Bucks is the only county to preserve the returns in full. Original copies are now held at the British Library and Buckinghamshire Archives.
What’s its value for genealogists?
Though created as a military record, the beauty of this resource for family historians is that more than 23,000 individual names were recorded with occupation and other social information. The result is ‘the nearest available to an occupational census of the county as a whole until the official census returns of 1841.’
The men listed in the p.c. (I’ll call it that from now on to be concise) were born between about 1737-1783. For me, this takes me back to my 4x and 5x great grandfathers, of whom dozens were born in Buckinghamshire, and their brothers and cousins would be included as well. Ages are not included, nor any stated relationships, but if two men lived in the same place, with the same occupation and the same name you may well see one listed as ‘Senior’ and one ‘Junior’.
The transcription provides alphabetical indexes of places and surnames, and the PDF is searchable, so it’s quite easy to find specific places and people. For people researching a particular town or village, the register provides a fantastic sense of place.
However, even if you have no Bucks ancestors that you know of, it’s a fascinating document for any family or social historian, as it provides a snapshot of society on the brink of industrialisation. Though the vast majority of men were farmers or farm employees, and many others worked in ancient trades such as blacksmithing and carpentry, towns could also support teachers, transport workers, wine merchants, tea dealers, watchmakers, and even dance instructors. Apprentices are noted – presumably since they were tied to their employers. Scanning the pages, you’ll find many long-obsolete but evocative occupations, such as a ratcatcher, a cake man, a perukemaker, a sieve bottomer, 35 higlers, and a pig poker.
The register also notes the religion of Jews, Quakers and other ‘dissenters’, some of whom would not have been willing or perhaps permitted to serve in the military.
Physical and mental health problems are also recorded. The proportion of men with missing eyes, limbs and fingers, or who were lame, infirm or ‘subject to fits’, highlights the danger of their work as well as the lack of medicine and surgical interventions available to manage injuries and chronic diseases. Other men are recorded as ‘insane’, ‘idiot’, or ‘nervous’. I’m not sure how many of those with health problems would nevertheless have been considered fit to serve. One who probably was not, is William Weaver in St Leonard’s (one of my ancestral villages); one of two ‘quack doctors’ in the county (according to himself or others?), William was noted to be ‘lame dead’!!
Of course, this is far from a complete census. We have only a few exceptions included under the age of 15 or over 60 (such as John Barnett, ‘Now in his 78th Year, but desirous of being enrolled as a Man able and willing to serve’), and existing soldiers were excluded. Women, who drove the county’s lace and straw cottage industries, only feature as owners of horses and carts. However, I’m really spoiled to have this additional resource for so many of my ancestors. Unlike baptisms, marriages and burials, which are mere milestones, the posse comitatus shows my ancestors in the real act of living in a place and time, among their family, neighbours and friends. I can imagine them literally standing up to be counted.
My own Bucks posse
This article isn’t intended to be a definitive guide to this record or how to use it. However, to give you a taste of what is possible, here are some of the things I’ve learned from the document about my own ancestors – my Bucks posse!
The majority of my Bucks ancestors were agricultural labourers in the Victorian censuses, and I assumed that would also have been the case with previous generations. Although some 18th century baptismal records include the father’s occupation, most do not, and we may never know what jobs our ancestors did. However, the p.c. confirmed to me that many of my ancestors were indeed labourers – the largest and poorest sector of rural society – such as Thomas Crockett in Monks Risborough (5x), Joseph Osborn in St Leonard (5x), and Joseph Munday Snr and Jnr in Wendover (5x & 4x). Another large segment of working men – ‘Servants’ – would also have primarily been farm servants/labourers – like William Wyatt in Ellesborough (4x), who would have been about 17-18 years of age. However, there must have been some kind of division between servants and labourers, since they are listed separately in every village.
In addition to the expected prominence in my tree of men who worked the land, I found a few with specific trades – a surprise to me. John and Charles Radwell (Rodwell), father and son (5x & 4x) were the only weavers in East Claydon. They may have lived in one or more weavers’ cottages, with a well-lit loom shop on the ground floor and sleeping room above. The power loom had been invented in 1785, so this really was the end of an era for hand weavers.
Thomas Philbey (6x) came from Aston Clinton, but he was probably too old to be counted in the p.c., or already deceased. However, the five Philbeys in the village were all tailors, as were four Philbeys in nearby villages. The Philbeys were clearly a tailoring family, and my ancestor Thomas was probably a tailor too.
I was also surprised to find that a couple of my ancestors may have been farmers, not only farm employees. Of course, the term ‘farmer’ could span a wide range in scale and status.
My direct ancestors did not have any health issues recorded, but my 7x great uncle John Underwood, a farmer in Whaddon, was said to be ‘Deformed’. John does not seem to have married, and left his possessions and money to nieces and nephews. Fourteen men in the p.c. were ‘deformed’, ‘deformed in body’, or ‘rather deformed’. However, John was a farmer, so presumably able to do manual work. Indeed, John was also approximately 65 years old – above the age limit for the p.c., but was considered eligible for inclusion – so perhaps was in general fit for his age? What kind of deformity did he have? Was John’s physical appearance the reason for his not marrying? Having done some initial research in the newspaper archives on meanings of ‘deformed’ in this period, I don’t yet have a theory, but I am certainly planning a future blog post on this fascinating topic!
One of the most valuable aspects of the p.c. is that it has helped me to find possible ancestors where I had reached a dead end with the online records available to me.
Some of my ancestors were children in 1798, so do not show up in the p.c., but possible candidates for their fathers are listed in or near the place they were born. William Woodroffe (4x), was born in Marsworth before 1795 but I have been unable, to date, to find a baptism for him. He was probably too young to appear on the p.c. himself. However, there was one candidate for a father in Marsworth in 1798 – Joseph Woodderowffe (because one ‘o’, one ‘d’ and one ‘f’ is never enough (enoowffe?)!) – a farmer with two horses and one cart. William Goodchild, a sawyer in Monks Risborough, was a likely father of William Goodchild (4x), born in the same village, who grew up to be a carpenter. John Paine Snr and Jnr, farmers in St Leonards, were likely to be the grandfather and father of William Payne (4x), born 3 miles away in Aston Clinton. I knew from censuses that Olliff Foster (4x) was born in Weston Turville in 1790. There were no Fosters in that village (though a Folster is a possible candidate), but an ‘Off Foster’, too old to be listed as a potential posse member, owned horses and carts in another village 7 miles away. A search in Ancestry showed that he was also an ‘Olliffe’, and so this points me to a possible ancestor and a place to search for the link between two Olliffs.
As well as helping me find some possible new ancestors or at least give me research leads, the p.c. has also made me question the validity of some relationships I had already accepted into my tree.
For example, when looking for the baptism of Ann Verney (5x), who married in Wendover in 1798, I found just one that fitted – Ann Varney b. 1777 in Berkhamstead, 17 miles away. I had accepted the hint, as even though my ancestors rarely moved beyond 5 miles in this period, it seemed possible. However, the p.c. showed that a Thomas Verney was living in Great Missenden, just five miles away from Wendover – a much more likely candidate to be her father, even in the absence of a digitised baptism record.
One significant disappointment was the discovery of the true origins of my 5x great grandmother, Martha Dean. Martha was the wife of Joseph Munday Snr, the labourer mentioned above. As with Ann Verney, I had only found one viable baptism for her online, to a Daniel Dean of Hambleden, 14 miles away. I had not explored the line any further, though I knew that Daniel had died in 1769 and would not be in the p.c. However, looking at Hambleden, I was surprised to see that several Deans were farmers there. In fact, five Deans in Hambleden were registered in the 1784 poll for the Knights of the Shire. I was not aware of any of my ancestors being sufficiently affluent to have been able to vote in that election. I was excited to find wealthy ancestors with the prospect of more genealogical records, and I started to delve deeper. I established that some of the Deans listed in the p.c. were sons of Daniel. I then found Daniel’s will. He was a yeoman, and left large sums of money to many family members, including £400 to his youngest daughter Martha, with another £400 to come when she either turned 21 or married, whichever happened first. £800 in 1798 is worth more than £35,000 today! And yet, according to my tentative paper trail, Martha married a labourer, and her sons were also labourers. I briefly entertained the romantic notion that since Martha had married below her station, it must have been a love match. But then, what had happened to the money? Something didn’t seem right. I next reviewed the will of one of Daniel’s sons, Abraham, who died later in 1798. This will showed that his now-married sister Martha had the surname Fastnidge, not Munday. Sadly, this was clearly not my family after all. So who was Martha’s father? I found several Deans living within 5 miles of Wendover who are possible candidates – a farmer, and 4 labourers. A labourer is much more likely.
It’s been a very good reminder that even when an online database only returns one viable match, it’s not necessarily the right one!
It has been really interesting to see where my ancestral surnames showed up throughout the county in 1798. Some were well distributed, while others only appeared in a single village or very small area. In some cases, a surname location provided a clue as to where my ancestors might have come from. For example, I could not find my Mackerneys ancestor in Buckingham, a possible place of origin, but found two ‘Mackerness’ entries elsewhere, which I can now follow up on.
Surname variations have been cross-referenced in the index. Of course, the majority of these would simply have been the chosen spelling of the literate (or semi-literate) person who wrote them down. Inconsistencies even appear in the same village. My 5x and 6x great grandfathers Thomas Tamer and Thomas Tarmer were labourers in The Lee.
Thanks to the surname index and ability to quickly review names in nearby villages, I’ve identified possible ancestors with variant spellings. For example, I was unable to find John Wilden (6x) in Great Horwood, where his daughter was baptised, but found John Wilding in a neighbouring village. Mary Langstone was born in Wendover, and a Thomas Lankstone is recorded there. I don’t yet know the name of the parents of Eliza Plaster (4x), and the only other Plasters in the p.c. lived far from her home village, The Lee. But near to The Lee, there were two Plaisteds, one of whom was lame, and the other the owner of 3 horses and a cart. Was one of these Eliza’s father?
However, a few ancestors proved elusive. My 5x, Robert Dewet, b. c1765, married in Whaddon in 1789 and baptised his son, my 4x, in 1794. Yet there’s no sign of him in the county, or of his 4 older brothers. Only one man with a surname variant appears, 18 miles from Whaddon. Where were the Dewets? Could they have been in the military already, and hence exempt from the p.c. register? Likewise, my 6x, William Maultby, married in Wingrave in 1783 and his son, my 5x, was probably born there in the same year. Yet there are no Maultbys or Maltbys in the entire county. William had property just over the border in Herts when he died. Was he counted there?
Nevertheless, in many cases, an ancestor I knew to be alive in 1798 was registered right where I expected him to be. I knew that my 5x, Richard Smith, was baptised in Monks Risborough in 1756, and buried there in 1832. His son, my 4x, also Richard Smith, was born in the same village in 1779 and would have been about 18 years old in 1798. In the p.c., two Richard Smiths were listed as labourers at Monks Risborough. These working class men with common names were suddenly more real and three-dimensional – a father and son working, perhaps side by side, in the same village where my parents were married 175 years later.
Please, sir, I want some more.
Much as the posse comitatus is really a bonus resource, and I am extremely lucky to have so many ancestors recorded in it, it makes me greedy for even more information. The women, largely invisible in this record, were in fact right there with their menfolk. Censuses showed that many of my female Bucks ancestors were lace makers and straw plaiters, and I’m sure that in 1798, many of my woman ancestors would have supplemented their family’s income with the same skills. I wonder which of my older ancestors were still alive, and how were they cared for? How were the men listed related to each other. How old were they? What deformity afflicted John Underwood? Above all, I wish it were possible to know for sure that the names recorded are my own flesh and blood. But still, how lucky I am to have this colourful window into the past.
Very … Aylesbury!
After looking for nearly 40 surnames in the posse comitatus, I have a much clearer picture of my Buckinghamshire ancestry at the turn of the 19th century. Not only were most of my ancestors living in Bucks, most of those were also concentrated in one area in the centre of the county – Aylesbury Hundred (highlighted yellow below). In fact, almost all of them lived within a 5 mile radius of Wendover. And it’s probable that most of their ancestors (and mine) had lived in this part of the Chilterns for hundreds of years.
Although most of my Bucks ancestors 222 years ago were labourers who left very few traces of their lives, the posse comitatus shows them as integral members of a local community and men who were able to serve their county. For me, it’s really helped put them on the map.
Appendix: My Bucks Names in 1798 (& definite or most likely places)
CHAPMAN – Wendover, Ellesborough CLARK – Waddesdon CROCKETT – Monks Risborough CROFT – ? CROOK – Waddesdon DARVILL/DARVIL – Monks Risborough, Lee, Wendover DAWSON – ? DEAN – Great Missenden, Princes Risborough DEWETT – ? DYER – Aston Clinton EAST – ? FOSTER – Weston Turville, Whitchurch GOODCHILD – Monks Risborough, Princes Risborough HOMAN – Waddesdon HILL – Aylesbury JAMES – Little Missenden LANGSTONE/LANKSTONE – Wendover MACKERNESS/MACKERNEYS – Whaddon MAULTBY – ? MEERS – Waddesdon MESSER – ? MUNDAY – Wendover OSBORN – St Leonard’s PAYNE/PAINE – St Leonard’s PEARCE – The Lee, Great Missenden PHILBEY/PHILBY – Aston Clinton, Weston Turville PLAISTED/PLASTER – St Leonard’s PRIEST – Little Missenden RADWELL/RODWELL – East Claydon SHARP – The Lee SMITH – Monks Risborough, Marsworth TAMER/TARMER (TALMER) – The Lee UNDERWOOD – Whaddon VERNEY/VARNEY – Great Missenden WOODRUFF/WOODDEROWFFE – Marsworth WYATT/WEYATT – Ellesborough, Monks Risborough WILDING/WILDEN – Calverton
The Life & Career of George Read, a Victorian Thames River Policeman
In December 1888, Detective-Inspector George Read of the Metropolitan Police Thames Division (CID) retired after 33 years of service. So considerable was the respect for him in the local business community that a committee – which included everyone from shipping merchants to barge and tugboat owners (and some barristers and solictors to keep everything above board) organised a testimonial fund for him. When inviting voluntary contributions (not to exceed 1 guinea) the committee reminded people of the many times Inspector Read had been commended by judges, juries, and magistrates.
And yet, like so many early recruits to the Met, George Read had very humble origins.
According to his grandson, George’s father had died ‘a victim of liquor’ soon after he was born, and George had been sent to a farm, where he lived barefoot and illiterate, for an abusive master, until one day, he ran away and became a sailor. In truth, George’s father didn’t die when he was young, but his childhood was certainly not easy.
Born in the village of Bedfield, Suffolk on 1 September 1832, George was the seventh of ten children of James Read, an agricultural labourer, and Charlotte Brightan. When George was a few years old, his father was a husbandman, so must have farmed his own small plot of land to help feed his large family. However, by 1841 James was once again described as an Ag Lab, and times seem to have been really hard for the family. Although the eldest son, Fred, was apprenticed to a shoemaker, a skilled trade did not seem to be on the cards for the other children. Half of them were scattered around the village living with employers. Frances (16), a servant, and James (14), an Ag Lab, lived on a farm. John was the youngest to have left his family; at the age of just 11 (my daughter’s age now), he was an Ag Lab living at Bedfield Hall (pictured below). The lives of many of the family would continue to be gruelling. One still worked as a labourer at 80, while another died in the workhouse. After George’s father died, his mother became a pauper.
Whether there is any truth in the story that George was sent to work on a farm, like his brothers, and ill-treated by his boss, I don’t know. However, he did depart from his rural upbringing in Suffolk by 1851; that year he was working as a labourer in Dovercourt, Harwich, and living with his big brother Fred, now a skilled shoemaker with a wife and baby. Their next-door neighbours were the Death family (!), headed by Henry Death, a gardener. That same year, Martha Death, a widow and annuitant in St Nicholas, Harwich (about a mile away), had a domestic servant called Emma Elizabeth Pearl (born in Harwich to Henry Pearl, a baker from Suffolk). I imagine that Emma was accompanying Mrs Death on a visit to Henry Death, when she met George Read. The elderly Martha Death met her Death in June 1853, and George and Emma were married in Q3!
Family stories and police registers state that George was a mariner before joining the force, and though I have no marine records for him I assume this to be true. His brother Fred’s wife was the daughter of a Coast Guard, and that may have created an opportunity for George. However, he can’t have spent many years at sea, because at the age of 22, two years after marrying, he applied for the position of Police Constable with the Metropolitan Police Force in London, and was recommended by three Harwich men, two of whom were grocers – one originally from Bedfield. His application was accepted and on 15 July 1855, George signed on at Scotland Yard, and was assigned to ‘M’ Division (Southwark). George was about to embark on a new and exciting career!
The Metropolitan Police had been established in 1829 by an Act of Parliament that recognised the need for a professional police force in London. Throughout the 1800s a large proportion of recruits came from rural locations and the majority had low-skilled backgrounds. Some had served with the Army or Navy. Candidates needed to be under 35, fit, and a minimum of 5’7 tall (George was 5′ 10). They had to be of ‘good character’ (hence the references). They were also expected to be able to read and write, so George must have had an elementary education (whereas his sisters, who could not sign their name on official documents, likely had none at all).
The job of Police Constable had many attractions, including the potential for long-term steady work, sick pay and medical care, and subsidised housing. Unlike most working class jobs at the time, it also offered the opportunity of career advancement and social mobility. George would have been provided with some training, a uniform – including a blue swallowtail coat and black stovepipe leather hat (all of which he had to wear at all times, including when off-duty), truncheon, rattle and a rule book.
George did not take his wife Emma with him to London, perhaps because she was heavily pregnant. It must have been a wrench for him to leave her behind in Harwich. Just a month later, his daughter Emma was born in Harwich, but tragically, soon after the birth, new mother Emma developed rheumatic fever, and after two weeks of fever she died on 5th September, aged 25, with her father by her side. For George, in a new job, far from home and any family, this must have been a huge blow. I wonder if he was able to take leave to return to Harwich for his wife’s funeral, and to see his infant daughter. Certainly, it would have been impossible for him to work and also care for a child, so I assume that baby Emma stayed in Harwich with her grandparents.
Later that month, George was transferred to the Thames Division, commonly known by the name of its predecessor, the Thames River Police. The River Police had been formed in 1798 to combat theft and smuggling, and had been incorporated into the Met as the Thames Division in 1839. The division’s jurisdiction was primarily the tidal section of the river, from Teddington in the West to the Dartford Creek in the East, with a moored cutter as a station at the latter. This translated to more than 50 miles of river and navigable creeks, though Edward Smith of the MPS Heritage Centre tells me that ‘the westernmost Thames Division station in Read’s time was a naval hulk anchored by Waterloo Bridge, meaning that in practice they would have limited range on the western Thames’ and that ‘their range [at that time] would effectively be dictated by how far they could row’. Throughout this region of the Thames they were responsible for policing ‘below the high water mark’. Rob Jeffries of the Thames River Police Museum gave me an example: ‘If a dead body is reported at the Victoria Embankment … If the body is floating in the river or discovered on the foreshore Thames Division would be responsible for dealing with it. If the body was discovered on the pavement of Victoria Embankment, then it would be dealt with by the City Police or ‘A’ Dist. Officers depending on its location.’ As a Met policeman, George had the same powers of arrest as an officer in any other division, but he was primarily dealing with crimes unique to the river. His grandson later wrote: ‘In those days the Thames police had rowing boats rowed by 3 or 4 pairs of oars. They dealt with pirates and smugglers in the riverside warehouses which frequently held valuable cargo such as ivory.’ Most officers in the division had a maritime background, and the experience would have prepared George well for the physical effort and skills needed to navigate the Thames, though he could not have been prepared for the many crimes and criminals he would encounter.
Charles Dickens spent an evening with Thames Division, and published an account of his experience in 1853, Down With the Tide. He writes:
We were in a four-oared Thames Police Galley, lying on our oars in the deep shadow of Southwark Bridge – under the corner arch on the Surrey side – having come down with the tide from Vauxhall. We were fain to hold on pretty tight, though close in shore, for the river was swollen and the tide running down very strong. We were watching certain water-rats of human growth, and lay in the deep shade as quiet as mice; our light hidden and our scraps of conversation carried on in whispers. Above us, the massive iron girders of the arch were faintly visible, and below us its ponderous shadow seemed to sink down to the bottom of the stream. We had been lying here some half an hour. With our backs to the wind, it is true; but the wind being in a determined temper blew straight through us, and would not take the trouble to go round. I would have boarded a fireship to get into action, and mildly suggested as much to my friend Pea. ‘No doubt,’ says he as patiently as possible; ‘but shore-going tactics wouldn’t do with us. River-thieves can always get rid of stolen property in a moment by dropping it overboard. We want to take them WITH the property, so we lurk about and come out upon ’em sharp. If they see us or hear us, over it goes.’
Dickens’ policeman companion, who he nicknames ‘Pea’, explains that they dealt with four kinds of water-thieves: tier-rangers – who board vessels in the night and steal personal possessions, lumpers – who conceal goods in extra-large pockets ‘like clowns in pantomimes’, truckers – who smuggled larger volumes, and dredgermen, who sank stolen items into the river for retrieval later. It’s a very atmospheric piece and well worth a read (though, trigger warning: there’s a very descriptive section about suicides).
In 1858, George remarried to his cousin, Mary Ann Knights, daughter of a Mile End grocer, who came from Hoxne, just eight miles from Bedfield. He now had a mother for his young daughter, and would have been eligible for a married officer’s lodging allowance. The marriage certificate said that George was a ‘Waterman’ rather than a police officer. Perhaps that is how he saw his job at the time. However, after five years of service he was evidently an experienced and capable policeman. The first insight I have into his work is an 1860 newspaper report about a robbery. Two Scottish soldiers, William Beattie and William Reid, newly discharged from service in India, had arrived in London and were staying there en route to Scotland. After an afternoon of heavy drinking, Beattie went to bed rather ill, and while he was sleeping, Reid stole his money. The following night …
‘the prosecutor and a Police Constable named George Read, 190H, went on board a steam-ship bound to Leith and found the prisoner on board. He had provided for his passage to Scotland. The prosecutor asked the prisoner for his money, on which he assumed a bold air, and said, “I have got no money, I have been robbed myself.” The police constable said, “Come, no nonsense; you have got your comrade’s money.” The prisoner insisted he had not got a farthing. The constable immediately searched him, and found upon him 15 sovereigns, and among them one of the reign of George the Fourth, which Beattie had previously described to the policeman, a rupee, a quarter rupee, and some silver English coin.’ (Morning Advertiser, 27 Jan 1860)
Later that year, George and Mary Ann had their first child, Agnes. In 1861 the family (including George’s five-year-old daughter Emma) lived in Tower Hamlets. Mary Ann, though caring for a baby, was supplementing the family’s income with work as a bookbinder. Sadly, baby Agnes, nine months old, died just 10 days after the census. She had been suffering from hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) for three weeks, so she was already seriously ill when the census was taken. Their neighbour Mary Ann Smith was present at Agnes’s death. She was a Derbyshire shoemaker and the wife of another Thames police officer, Thomas Smith.
In 1863, the year in which George would have replaced his top hat with the iconic policeman’s helmet, George & Mary Ann had another child, George James. They would go on to have five more children after that, and two of their sons, including George Jr., would also become Metropolitan policemen.
At this time, the MPF had still not developed into a thoroughly professional, disciplined force, and large numbers of PCs were dismissed for drunkenness; in 1863, 215 officers were arrested for being intoxicated while on duty! Mary Ann supposedly helped George turn away from drink, and his career progression indicates that he was performing his duties effectively. In 1865, George became one of the minority of policemen during this period to progress beyond Constable, when he was promoted to Inspector (Third Class), a position he held for eight years. This rank was unique to Thames Division, and was equivalent to the Station Sergeant (the senior sergeant) in other divisions. It was created rather sneakily to give Thames policemen more power to search and detain. All Thames Division inspectors were also Customs and Excise Officers, so the more inspectors there were on the river, the more warrants could be carried.
The first trial in which ‘Inspector Read’ appears in the news came soon after his promotion, but was rather mundane; From George’s police galley off Battersea he witnessed a 16-year-old throwing rubbish from a barge into the river. He even brought samples of the rubbish to court – saying it was ‘very bad stuff’! The littering onto the mud was prosecutable under the ‘Thames Conservancy Act’. (London Evening Standard, 6 Oct 1865)
Although much of Inspector Read’s work was undramatic, the river police and the emerging field of detective work captured the imagination of writers such as Dickens and Conan Doyle. Like Dickens, Conan Doyle knew Thames police officers personally, and either of them may have met George Read! From 1864-1865, Dickens serialised Our Mutual Friend, which featured a calm, authoritative and analytical Thames inspector, simply called ‘Mr Inspector’. His character has been described as ‘imperturbable, omnicompetent, firm but genial’. (Philip Collins, Dickens and Crime) In one scene, he shows his strength and technical skill when recovering a boat containing ‘Gaffer’ Hexam’s body. If you’re not familiar with the story, Gaffer makes a dubious living out of robbing items from bodies he fishes out of the river. Now, it is Mr. Inspector’s turn to retrieve Gaffer’s remains: ‘It was an awful sort of fishing, but it no more disconcerted Mr. Inspector than if he has been fishing in a punt on a summer evening by some soothing weir high up the peaceful river.’ He then examines the body, making insightful observations about Gaffer’s appearance and cause of death – by the very rope he had used to pull corpses from the river. I haven’t found any evidence that George Read recovered any bodies, or investigated any deaths, but I believe he must have encountered cases of accidental drowning, suicide, and even murder in his long career.
In the 1860s, George’s youngest brother Alfred also left work as a labourer and joined the Metropolitan Police, working as a Constable in ‘K’ (Stepney) Division. Sadly, Alfred died of TB in 1874 and his son was admitted to the Metropolitan Police Orphanage. Read my post about this.
In 1867, George dealt with a coal theft from a barge by three boys. He stated in court that ‘the banks of the river were infested with young thieves, who plundered the coal barges to a great extent.’ Two of the boys had been convicted before and were ‘most notorious young thieves.’ The judge said they ought to have been at school, and that if they were brought before him again, and convicted, ‘he should send them to a reformatory’. He clearly felt that a warning alone wasn’t enough, however, and sentenced all the boys to hard labour. (Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 27 Jun 1867)
George’s cases in 1870 included a conviction for selling beer and liquor without a license, which showcased George’s growing skills as a detective. Two Thames constables were accosted after midnight by two prostitutes who said they knew where they could get a drink (outside legal hours), and took them to Ann Gilligan’s house (which the judge called ‘a nursery of crime and dissipation’), where gin and beer was available. Later, George Read entered the property and seized beer, rum, and gin. An Inspector from another division explained how George Read had cracked the case:
Inspector Rouse, of the K Division, said the prisoner had been in custody for every offence on the statute-book, not even excepting murder, and had been convicted many times. She had recently come out of prison after a nine months’ sentence, for an offence under the Habitual Criminals Act. He had received innumerable complaints of the prisoner carrying on an illegal traffic in beer and spirits, but could not detect her. Sailors had been inveigled into her infamous house made drunk, and stripped of all they had. At last, he had consulted with the Thames police, and a ruse suggested by Inspector Read proved successful. (Morning Advertiser, 13 Sep 1870)
Inspector Read was also involved in a dramatic and dangerous smuggling case that year, as reported in the Morning Advertiser on 5 Sep 1870, and even in the Glasgow Evening Post!
Smuggling On the River
John Smith and John Fleet, Belgian labourers, were brought before Mr Paget, charged with obstructing George Read, a Thames police inspector and Custom house officer. The inspector and his boat’s crew were on duty in a police galley that morning at eight o’ clock off St Katharine’s Dock wharf, and saw the prisoners leave the Belgian steamship Baron Osy, trading between London and Antwerp, and get into a boat. They had not rowed far when Inspector Read and his men boarded the boat, and demanded the tobacco they had about them. Smith immediately took two parcels of tobacco from under his waistcoat, and threw them overboard. Fleet took four large parcels of tobacco from under his dress, and threw them overboard. The Thames police endeavoured in vain to save the tobacco, but could not succeed, in consequence of Smith taking up a large boat-hook and breaking the parcels as they floated down the river. All the tobacco sank. A violent struggle took place in the boat, and all the parties were immersed in the water, and narrowly escaped being drowned. …
Throughout the 1870s, Inspector Read appeared in newspapers numerous times. At Thames Police Court (where almost all of his cases were heard), in 1871, he reported having seen the prisoner ‘landing some sugar in Wapping’. As well as the unlawful possession of 4 cwt 1 qt raw sugar, the prisoner had 5 cwt copper, a tarpaulin, an elephant’s tusk, 5 sling chains, 24 lbs of rapeseed, dog and cow hides [dog?!], a large quantity of old iron, and other property belonging to persons known and unknown. That year he also worked on cases of theft of apparel, silk, French ladies’ boots, rope, brandy, shells, and the ‘extensive robbery of wool’ – in which it was ‘Inspector Read, an active officer of the Thames Police, who has had charge of the case throughout, and by whose exertions the prisoners have been brought to justice’. (Morning Advertiser, 25 Dec 1871) The following year, George caught someone in unlawful possession of a canvas bag filled with 28 lbs tobacco and apprehended a principal member of the ‘Long Firm’ – ‘a notorious gang of swindlers’ that ‘infest London and prey on credulous tradespeople.’ (East London Observer, 22 Jun 1872)
On 12 June 1873 Police Orders stated ‘Inspector Reed [sic] is appointed Divisional Detective [on Thames Division] with the rank of Serjeant … with pay from 4th [June]’. George’s pension record also shows that his rank was changed from Third Class Inspector to Detective Sergeant. Per Edward Smith of the MPS Heritage Centre, ‘though 3rd Class Inspector to Detective Sergeant would nominally be a demotion, it’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds. Indeed, there may even have been a requirement or expectation to work one’s way up through CID ranks rather than simply leapfrog across from one uniform rank to its CID equivalent, albeit without dropping all the way back down from (for instance) Station Sergeant to Detective Constable.’ My take on this unusual change of title is that at this time George Read became a plain-clothes detective. According to the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre’s website, only three detectives were attached to Thames Division in 1875, and I like to think this means George was one of them. George continues to be referred to as ‘Inspector Read’ in newspapers throughout this period.
In 1874, George dealt with another coal theft from a barge, and this time, the defendants were a man and a little boy. ‘Inspector Read said there was a vast quantity of coal stolen from craft on the river, and no less than five or six tons had been stolen from the barge Mary alone.’ The judge said that the prisoner ‘not only only stole the coal, but was bringing the boy up to be a thief.’ The boy was discharged but the adult was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment with hard labour. The article doesn’t say whether the boy was his son, or what was to become of him while the adult served time. (Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 2 Feb 1874)
In 1877, George was still on the beat, and while on duty on the High St, Wapping, he caught a thief red-handed when he noticed someone whose clothing was ‘rather bulky.’ The man turned out to be concealing ’16lb lump sugar’. He was one of the ‘lumpers’ described by Dickens. (Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 6 Feb 1877)
George had more than earned his stripes when he was promoted for the final time. The Detective Branch was reorganised into the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) on 8 April 1878, and that very same day George was made an Inspector CID attached to the Thames Division.
A few months after his promotion, the Princess Alice paddle steamer sank in the Thames at Gallions Reach near Woolwich with the greatest loss of life of any British inland waterway shipping accident. Up to 700 people were drowned or died later from the noxious water. Thames policemen were deployed to control crowds and deal with remains and belongings from the disaster. One outcome of the resulting inquest was the replacement of the rowing boats used by river police with steam launches, the first two boats coming into service in the 1880s. These powered launches inspired a storyline in the Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Sign of Four, set in 1888, in which Holmes pursues a criminal from a police launch.
However, it seems that as a Detective Inspector, George now spent much more time on land, and could instruct constables to board a suspicious vessel rather than doing it himself. For example, in 1878, working on one of several cases of tobacco smuggling and illicit liquor sales, he ‘issued instructions to two Thames constables, who went on board the Bruce’. It seems that only after being certain of illegal operations, he boarded the vessel himself.
George’s last child was born at the end of 1878. Unfortunately baby Frederick only lived for 23 days. He died of atrophy, with his father present. An archaeological study of a Victorian East End cemetery found that ‘young infants were dying from convulsions, pneumonia, diarrhoea and atrophy. These deaths may have been related to underlying nutritional deficiencies as vitamin C and D deficiencies were noted on skeletons within this age group.’ One particular child, aged 17 months, who reportedly died from atrophy in 1851, was found to have had the bones of a 1-3-month-old due to vitamin D deficiency and rickets. For a newborn to be deficient in vitamins, of course, his mother would have had to have been as well. It indicates that in spite of George’s senior position in the police force, his family suffered from the poor living conditions of the East End.
In 1879, George’s detective skills enabled him to gather evidence against Mr Stitch, who had stolen 54 cans of lobster from Mr Pink! (How Dickensian!)
“In consequence of information which reached Inspector George Read, of the Criminal Investigation Department, he watched Stitch for several days, and he found that he had been systematically robbing his employer. He traced a portion of the stolen goods to the possession of the other prisoner …” (Aldershot Military Gazette – 1 February 1879)
Another interesting case from 1879 involved Mary Jones, a ‘tall, masculine-looking woman’ of 50, who was charged with carrying and conveying a type of foreign compressed tobacco that was subject to duty. Her clothing had caught the attention of some policemen, though she ‘professed to be very indignant’ at their questioning. She had hidden the cakes of tobacco in ‘a heavy quilted petticoat she was wearing’, which ‘had evidently been made for the purpose of conveying smuggled goods’. Inspector Read gave evidence that he knew the prisoner as a ‘regular old smuggler’. She was fined, with the default if not paid – a month in gaol. She ‘said she would not pay it, and was removed.’ She sounds like quite a character! (Morning Post, 30 Aug 1879)
Another woman prisoner charged with smuggling that year was Miss Marguerite Schmythe, a popular tobacconist with a business on West India Dock Rd. Detective-Inspector Read visited her premises, in company with Detective-Sergeant Horlock, and found foreign tobacco and cigars. A report of the trial shows his extensive expertise in his field, and could certainly provide inspiration for Sherlock Holmes!
Mr Young cross-examined Inspector Read at considerable length, especially with regard to the fact of the tobacco being of foreign manufacture. – The Inspector said he had no doubt at all about the matter. The tobacco he seized had the “knotty” appearance which tobacco that had been compressed and packed in small parcels always had; besides, when he seized it, the tobacco was moist and warm, this evidently being due to the fact of its having been “steamed”, a process that tobacco of that class was generally subjected to, so as to loosen it after packing, before it was sold.
Miss Schmythe’s defense pleaded that as she was German, she was probably unfamiliar with English laws. Furthermore, she was a ‘femme sole, and merely in a small way of business.’ His advocacy paid off and she was ‘merely’ fined £25 (about £1700 today). (East London Observer, 17 May 1879)
George’s partner on that case, Detective-Sergeant Horlock, was also his brother in law. William Horlock, who came from Dover, had joined the Thames Division six months after George. He left the force in 1881 after 24 years in the Thames Division, and later worked as an Estate Agent and a Caretaker. In 1890 he remarried to George’s daughter Emma. It seems that policing could be a close-knit family business.
In spite of George’s senior status, he was still in direct danger in the line of duty. In August 1879, a prisoner was charged with robbery of apparel and attempting to stab Inspector Read! George tried to apprehend him, but he ‘resisted most violently, bit Read’s finger and wrist, drew a knife, and attempted to stab him in the stomach.’ Thankfully, a constable and watchman came to help and ‘with their assistance the prisoner was taken to the station’.
As George Read reached the zenith of his career, was he aware that two of his cousins back in the Suffolk countryside were frequently getting into trouble with the law for their thuggish behaviour? In January 1879, David Read, a miller, quarrelled and fought with another miller until Read ‘struck [him] on the head with his whipstalk and cut his skull open.’ In 1890, David’s brother John was charged with ‘furious driving’ and David was convicted, for the 11th time, for being ‘drunk, stripped, his face covered in blood, and in a fighting attitude’. Perhaps if George had stayed in Bedfield, he would have ended up on the wrong side of the law.
Inspector Read appeared in the papers five times in the first half of 1883. In January, several papers reported on ‘Alleged Cruelty to a Lad at Sea’. The ‘lad’ was one of three men on a ship from Hull to Woolwich, and the ship’s mate had robbed and beaten him several times. The master simply said that ‘it served him right’! At one point, the mate had beaten him with a rope until he was ‘nearly insensible’. Eventually, the lad jumped ship and was rescued by a passing vessel and taken to hospital. The mate was brought to court on a warrant from Inspector Read, but the judge was not convinced of one man’s word over the other, and requested evidence from the captain. (Illustrated Police News, 27 Jan 1883)
The same month, William Colmey, a 30-year-old labourer, was indicted for the theft of tobacco from a barge. Inspector Read succeeded in tracing the stolen property to Colmey’s house. The prisoner’s defense called the prisoner’s daughter, ‘an intelligent little girl, about ten years old’, who claimed that someone else had brought the tobacco to the house. But the judge was not falling for it, and in passing the sentence he said the prisoner had ‘greatly aggravated his offence by causing his daughter – a child of such tender years – to be brought forward to give false testimony on his behalf. Such conduct was most disgraceful, and after the bad character he had received, the Court had but one course, and that was to sentence him to a term of five year’s penal servitude.’ The judge was sympathetic towards this girl, but it would have been extremely hard on her and her family to have her father incarcerated. (London Evening Standard, 6 Jan 1883). Although George is my focus, I’ve been drawn to learn more about some of the criminals he encountered as well. For example, William Colmey features in a number of criminal records, and I know from census records that his little girl was probably Helena. By 1891, they were living together again in a family of ten, but Colmey later went into the workhouse.
The same month we learn that George intercepted another tobacco smuggling, in which he recognised the packages to have come from Hamburg, and in March he investigated the theft of a large amount of wool from the barge Petrel – a case that involved horses and the railway as well as the Thames. A search of the thieves’ premises revealed other stolen goods including four American cheeses! A more exotic case followed in June – ‘The Serious Charge of Receiving at Poplar’. Two men were ‘charged on remand with feloniously receiving a quantity of ivory, well knowing it to have been stolen’. Since the first charge of receiving, Inspector Read had also intercepted a parcel sent by the prisoner, which contained ‘a quantity of French silk boots – very expensive articles.’ (East London Observer, 16 Jun 1883)
In 1884, George and Mary Ann’s son George James Read joined the Met, beginning in the Thames Division and then moving to ‘A’ (Whitehall – which included Scotland Yard and Westminster) in 1887. He was only 5’ 6 ¼, and the requirement for Thames Division was 5’7 (5’8 for other divisions) – so perhaps his dad helped him circumvent the height requirement. Constable George Read married Margaret (Maggie) Hills in 1886. She was the daughter of Thomas, a stevedore and former mariner, and Margaret, the caretaker of Whitechapel’s Salvation Army Mission Hall.
In the autumn of 1888, George and Mary Ann were living at St Ann’s Rd, Mile End, when ‘Jack the Ripper’ was terrifying East Enders. The murders were primarily investigated by Metropolitan Police ‘H’ Division (Whitechapel). However, during George’s last months of service, the river police were briefly involved in the investigation, searching boats.
One of George’s last reported cases, in September 1888, showcased the range of exotic imports coming into London. A man was charged with removing what he claimed were mere ‘sweepings’ of sago, gum, tapioca, ivory nuts and coffee from the floor of a business and taking them away for resale (Morning Post, 10 Sep 1888).
On 28 December 1888, Inspector George Read retired at the age of 56. His pension record shows that he was 5’10 with hazel eyes and a fresh complexion, and fair hair, turning grey. The fingers of both his hands were contracted and he had a birth mark on the knuckles of his left hand.
I don’t know how much money was donated to his testimonial fund, but from Christmas Day, 1888, George was entitled to a pension of £130 per annum – about £10K in today’s money. It was a comfortable allowance – equivalent to a full year’s wages for a skilled tradesman.
Between 1891 and 1901 George and Mary Ann left Mile End and moved to the Essex seaside, living in Home Leigh, Hadleigh, near Southend-on-Sea. Almost every home there had an individual name, and the Reads’ home was sandwiched by properties both called ‘Sea View’. In the 1891 census they had a visitor – their grandson Frederick – whose father George James was still a policeman living in West Ham. Perhaps Frederick was there for the health benefits of the fresh air.
George and Mary Ann were photographed on 10 December 1898 surrounded by family. It was the wedding day of their son James and his wife Edith, pictured on the left, who married in Tooting but spent their honeymoon in Hadleigh. The couple on the right are their daughter Jennie and her husband James – my husband’s great grandparents (holding their baby daughter Edith). In the centre is policeman Will Read. (And I recently learned from a cousin that the dog was called Bolan, and belonged to James Read!).
After 1901, George purchased two new houses next door to each other in nearby Prittlewell. He named his own house‘Alpha Villa’. I can imagine him surveying his new property and nodding his head in satisfaction at his achievement. He had left behind extreme poverty in Suffolk, had a distinguished policing career, and could now enjoy his golden years by the sea, perhaps spending more time with his 22 grandchildren. However, he never forgot his Suffolk roots; he named the house next door, which was home to his daughter Jennie’s family, ‘Saxted Villa’, after a village near Bedfield and Hoxne (the reasons for ‘Saxted’, in particular, are a mystery, but Jennie took the name with her to her next house, where she lived until her death in 1959 – keeping the family’s origins front of mind for generations to come).
In 1898, George & Mary Ann’s youngest son, William (Will), also joined the ‘family business’, becoming an Inspector in ‘C’ (St James’). Unfortunately, I have found out very little about George James & Will’s careers. However, in 1894, Detective-Sergeant George Read of K Division gave evidence at the trial of John Hardie, a carriage cleaner, who was indicted for stealing and receiving from his employers, the Great Eastern Railway Company (GER). The stolen property was traced by the GER’s own Detective-Inspector C.R. Campbell by a few grains of sawdust left at the crime scene! Hardie was found guilty but received a lenient sentence. ‘Mr Elliott, for the defence, said that he could not do otherwise than compliment both Campbell and Read upon the fair manner in which they had conducted the case and given their evidence.’ (East Anglian Daily Times, 16 Jun 1894)
George James and Will both retired from the Met in 1912, after serving for 27 and 26 years respectively. George’s pension record reveals that he had a blue tattoo on his right forearm.
Although George has been the focus of this post, I have no doubt that Mary Ann, of whom very few records survive, played a critical role in supporting George and their family throughout his career, and I hope that after George’s retirement they enjoyed some peaceful time together. In their older years, George & Mary Ann apparently became very religious, and this may explain why they were photographed with what I assume to be a bible on their laps (whether their own or a studio prop).
In 1919, George and Mary Ann Read died at home in Alpha Villa exactly one week apart from each other, Mary Ann on the 19th (aged 82) and George on the 26th (aged 86). I had suspected the Spanish Flu, but according to their death certificates they both died of ‘Senile Decay’ and ‘Cardiac failure no P.M.’ with their children at their side. They were interred six days apart in the same grave in Sutton Road Cemetery, Southend-on-Sea.
I’m very grateful to Rob Jeffries (Hon. Curator., Thames Police Museum, Wapping) and Edward Smith (Curatorial Assistant, MPS Heritage Centre) for helping me make sense of some of the records and articles about George Read’s life, and for putting his service into a broader context.
Note: Newspaper sources have been provided where I have included any quote(s) from the article. All have been referenced via BritishNewspaperArchive.com. Updated 5 Sep 2020 to include additional information from the MPS Heritage Centre.
Updated 24 Apr 2021 with new information about the family photograph at Hadleigh, from George and Mary Ann’s descendant Alison Hughes, and information on the Hills family.