Thursday, 26 September 2013

Peering Through the Fog

Time fogs the view, with changed street names, changing cities, changing cultures. Looking at original documents can tell us a whole lot about our ancestors and the times they lived in, but sometimes it takes a bit of research to understand what the story really is.

Taking a leaf out of Geoff Rasmussen's book, from the Legacy Webinar series "Watch Geoff Live", I have decided to take you through what happened when I received a death certificate from England in the post a few months ago. It was for my third great grandfather, but when it arrived I wasn't quite sure about it. The dearth of information was a little disappointing, for starters. We are quite spoilt with death certificates in Australia. Once government registration got properly underway in the 1850s our certificates carried a lot of information (still do). Date and place of death, name, occupation, sex and age, cause of death, parents' names including mother's maiden name, informant, Registrar, date and place of registration, where buried, minister, undertaker, place of birth, how long in colony, spouse and when married, children (often listed with age at the person's death). Like I said, spoilt. England is rather less generous: date, name, sex, age, occupation, cause, informant details, registrar, date of registration. That's it.

So a little detective work was called for, just to make sure that this is the death certificate for my ancestor.

Death Certificate of George Leonard, 3 Feb 1874. From General Register Office, Southport

He had a distinctive name if you used the whole of it - George Valentine Leonard. His middle name was for his mother's father, Valentine Groves. Unfortunately, the death certificate just has "George Leonard". I know he was born about 1798-1799 in Little Hampton in Worcestershire, and his age tallies with that. I know he died between 1871 and 1881, thanks to the Census. George and his wife Ann had been living with one of their daughters, Emma Alderman Ruckes and her family. In 1871 the Ruckes and Leonards were at 28a Chapel Place, Southwark. In 1881 the Ruckes were in 3 Salterton Street, Islington. A check of freeBMD found no George Leonards in Islington or in Worcestershire, and a few in Southwark, only one of which was anywhere near the right age. That's how I managed to order the certificate in the first place.

According to the certificate, George's place of death was 5 Nelson Street, which doesn't match his last known Census location. And if you go looking for Chapel Place and Nelson Street on modern maps or GoogleEarth you won't find them. Old maps are just the ticket. Did you know there are lots of historical maps online? And quite a few of them can be accessed for free, such as Weller's 1868 map of London? Then there is the Charles Booth Archive. If you are interested in London's East End in the C19th this site is a must. Booth was a reformer working from 1886 to the early 1900s. He walked all over London, compiling a street-by-street analysis and colour-coding every street and area according to set criterior to create his "Poverty Maps". He made notes about the state of houses, the level of dress of children (such as whether or not they had shoes), the occupations of residents, levels of crime (he was usually accompanied by a local policeman), and so on. Although his journals are written after George's death, Booth refers to the East End as it had been as well as its condition at time of recording.

Lots of close scrutiny of old maps. Nelson Street was easy, thanks to Mr. Booth. In Book 364, page 45, Booth lists "Kipling St. (late Nelson St.)". Chapel Place was harder. I ended up getting an old map and a new map and comparing them. Turns out Chapel Place has been renamed Hankey Street. When you look at these on GoogleEarth, what do you know, they are a hare's breath (or is it a hair's breadth?) from each other. Below is an Ordinance Survey map from 1896 showing both streets with their original names. I don't know which house was 28a Chapel Place.
Chapel Place and Nelson Street, Bermondsey. Entrances off Long Lane are marked with blue crosses. The building marked in red is 5 Nelson Street. From Southwark Historical Mapping, Southwark Council
If you are interested in the history of this area, have a look at Bermondsey Yesterday and Today. As well as having photos of different parts of Bermondsey in the past and in more or less the present (give or take a couple of years), there are also discussions of areas, detailed memories and commentary. It is a good site, but can be a bit disheartening. During World War II, the East End was heavily bombed. The Docks and all the factories made for prime targets. What the Luftwaffe didn't destroy was finished off by planners and developers. Yes, there were appalling slums, and few people probably shed a tear when they were bulldozed, but there were also very beautiful buildings, along with ordinary but old buildings that spoke of the character of the area, and buildings that had community significance. It looks like few of these have survived, replaced instead by soul-less boxes and towering monstrosities, or empty lots, although there seems to be more parkland and more trees, so it's an ill wind...
According to Charles Booth, Chapel Place was rated "Fairly comfortable, good ordinary earnings". He described the street as having "a good many broken windows". There were prostitutes resident, but no brothels, and there were thieves about1. However, the area was not poverty stricken and improvements had been made. Chapel Place was so named because it was next to the Wesley Chapel.

Chapel Place, about 1900? From Bermondsey Yesterday and Today page 89
Nelson Street, meanwhile, was "mixed, some comfortable, some poor". 5 Nelson Street was a house somehow attached to the Greenwich Charitable Organisation Society to which I can find no references beyond Booth's notebooks.
So George's death address shows this could well be my George Leonard. Next clue is the informant. E.A. Pember is not a relative in my tree. Initially when I saw the name it was one of the reasons I was in doubt about this being the certificate for my George Leonard, but a little investigation proved interesting. The Metropolitan Free Hospital, founded in 1836, was for the treatment of the destitute. It started out in Carey Street, Stepney but due to budgetry constraints could only treat out patients. It moved to Devonshire Square, Spitalfields and then into a warehouse in Commercial Street East. The move officially occurred in 1876, but negotiations had been underway for some time. As to York Street, this was the location of the St Margaret and St John Workhouse - the street is now Petty France. Attending George at his death was someone from a workhouse  and a hospital for the destitute2. That and the fact that where he was living was attached to a Charitable Organisation doesn't speak well of his circumstances.

George died on 3 February 1874. At the time of his death, he had been working as a Commercial Agent. This means he was selling goods, services or insurance on commission. He had gone from a retired man living with his wife, daughter and family to a working man living on his own in need of charitable assistance. Something went wrong here and I don't yet know what it was.

George's cause of death was Chronic Bronchitis, which had lasted for about six weeks. London has long been noted for its fogs and smog, made worse by the Industrial Revolution. The East End, full of factories and situated in a bowl so the fog could not clear, was the worst area. The fog of 1873 began around 9 December. R. Russell in his book “London Fogs”, published 1880, described a London fog as:
“brown, reddish-yellow, or greenish, darkens more than a white fog, has a smoky, or sulphurous smell, is often somewhat dryer than a country fog, and produces, when thick, a choking sensation. Instead of diminishing while the sun rises higher, it often increases in density, and some of the most lowering London fogs occur about midday or late in the afternoon. Sometimes the brown masses rise and interpose a thick curtain at a considerable elevation between earth and sky. A white cloth spread out on the ground rapidly turns dirty, and particles of soot attach themselves to every exposed object.”4
Of the 1873 fog, Russell noted it “was one of the thickest and most persistent of this century... in London there was a dense black fog all day, and many accidents occurred on the river and in the streets... many of the fat cattle exhibited at the Great Show at Islington died of suffocation. It was not possible during a great part of the day to see across a narrow street, and in the evening a choking sensation was felt in breathing.” He reported that on 14 December there was a pitch blackness, beginning about 10.15am, “like that of night”. During the fog “deaths exceeded the weekly average by about 700”3. That's a 40% increase. The most common cause was bronchitis, although there was also a marked increase in drownings as people walked into the Thames in the gloom. George's bronchitis set in during the fog. It is fair to say he was one of its many casualties.

Basically, I am now pretty confident that I have George Valentine Leonard's death certificate. What looks on the surface like a simple document has unfolded into something much more, telling a tale, albeit an unhappy one, of the end of my third great grandfather's life. I'm glad I took the time to clear away some of the fog of time, I just wish I could have done something for George.
1 Booth Charles, B364, pp.38-39,, London School of Economics
2 see "The Workhouse" by Peter Higganbotham,
3Russell, R. “London Fogs”, Edward Stanford, 55 Charing Cross, SW, London, 1880, p.21
4Ibid., p.22

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