The Real Oliver Twist

After finding my orphaned great grandfather and his brother in the local workhouse I wanted to learn more about how life was for them.  I remembered from ‘A’ level history the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor; and it seemed that a six-year-old orphan could not in any scenario be painted as ‘undeserving’.  But did they know kindness?  Were they well-clothed and properly fed?  Was life constrained on all sides by rules?

Think of a small boy in a Victorian workhouse, and chances are you’ll end up with Oliver Twist.  This, then, was my first port of call.  But it wasn’t much help: of the 53 chapters in Dickens’s novel only six deal with his time in the workhouse, after which he sets off to London to find himself in the care of Fagin, Artful et. al.  (If you’ve not read it, I can tell you they’re all significantly less cuddly than they seem in Lionel Bart’s musical.)

More recently I came across John Waller’s book, The Real Oliver Twist, and felt sure this would provide me with the information I wanted.  Reviewed in The Guardian as ‘a compelling history of the lives of workhouse children in the industrial revolution’, I assumed it would be a collection of testimonies by former workhouse children, inspectors, etc., looking at different aspects of life inside the system.  But no.  It is in fact, the astonishing, heart-breaking but ultimately inspiring story of the actual, real Oliver Twist – the boy whose story is thought to have inspired Charles Dickens to write his novel.

His name was Robert Blincoe, and he was born around 1792, probably out of wedlock, in St Pancras, at that time a rural parish just outside London.  For some reason, he believed himself to be the illegitimate son of a vicar, and found comfort in that.  John Waller sets out his story in six parts, the first of which does deal with Robert’s workhouse years.  It helps to understand that the Poor Law system at this time was based upon each parish looking after their own.  The workhouse was legally obliged to feed, clothe and house workhouse inmates, but life was dictated by rules, and there was no room for the tenderness and kindness that would help a child to thrive.  Records show that the St Pancras workhouse, designed to accommodate about 50, in fact had 450 inmates by 1787, and half of these were children.  It was dirty, smelly, a breeding ground for disease, and shortly after Robert’s departure the buildings were declared unfit and perilous.  Nevertheless, Robert was adequately dressed and fed, receiving a pint of milk porridge for breakfast, bread and cheese for supper and a hot lunch which included meat four times a week – a far better diet than many struggling families outside the workhouse.  He was also taught basic literacy skills.

St Pancras, like every other parish, would do whatever required to offload paupers to other parishes.  In the case of pauper children they did this by way of apprenticeship.  This was not the fine apprenticeship system that resulted in a young man skilled in the ‘Art and Mystery’ of Tailoring, Carpentry, Physick, or other trade.  ‘Parish apprentices’, as the workhouse children were known, were offloaded to employers requiring their nimble fingers and little bodies to do whatever couldn’t be done by an adult.  The fact that often, their employment didn’t prepare them for meaningful work in adulthood was neither here nor there.  Chimney sweeping was a prime example, and the smaller the boy the better.  However, chimney sweeps were notorious for cruelty towards their young charges.  It was normal for a sweep’s boy to sleep on the floor of his master’s cellar, with only his tattered clothing and soot bag for warmth.  Often they would go barefoot, with bent legs, respiratory conditions; and one particularly horrific occupational hazard was scrotal cancer.  Six-year-old Robert was so desperate to leave the workhouse that when news broke of the impending visit of a group of master sweeps, he managed to sneak in alongside the selected group of slightly taller boys, hoping to be chosen.  He wasn’t, and was as devastated to be left behind as the chosen ones were to leave.

By the first decade of the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution well under way, a new method of offloading workhouse children was found.  Parish apprentices would be carted off to work in the northern mills.  This was eventually how Robert left St Pancras, in the company of 31 other boys and girls.  What followed is dealt with in parts two and three of Waller’s book, when Robert and the other children were sent first to Lowdham Mill near Nottingham, and then to Litton Mill in Tideswell, Derbyshire.

There is only one way to describe the use of pauper children in the textile mills.  It was slave labour.  The children were forced to work up to sixteen hours a day, and sometimes all night.  There was no pay, except occasionally a penny for working even longer hours when deadlines required.  They were housed in an adjacent apprentices’ house, where they would return, exhausted, at the end of the day, often too tired to eat their woefully inadequate diet – porridge made with milk, or often with just water, and stale rye bread or oatcakes.  Barefoot, and wearing the coarsest of dusty, greasy clothing, the smallest children were forced to work as ‘scavengers’, picking up any loose cotton that fell to the floor below the fast-moving machines.  It goes without saying that this was dangerous work.  Yet all this was justified by the moneyed classes who seem genuinely to have believed that pauper workers were a race apart, unable even to feel physical pain as they themselves would.  One incident stands out:  One of the St Pancras girls, Mary Richards, got her apron caught in the loom shaft:

[Robert] saw her whirled round and round with the shaft – he heard the bones of her arms, legs, thighs, etc. successively snap asunder, crushed, seemingly, to atoms, as the machinery whirled her around and drew tighter and tighter her body within the works, her blood was scattered over the frame and streamed upon the floor, her head appeared dashed to pieces – at last, her mangled body was jammed in so fast, between the shafts and the floor, that the water being low and the wheels off the gear, it stopped the main shaft.  When she was extricated, every bone was found broken – her head dreadfully crushed – her clothes and mangled flesh were, apparently, inextricably mixed together, and she was carried off quite lifeless.

(from John Brown: A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, page 26)

Amazingly, Mary survived, but would remain severely disabled and unemployable for the rest of her life.  There was no compensation for workplace accidents; Mary was thrown on the scrap heap and would have to depend on payouts from the people of Lowdham parish.

Incidents of this kind were not uncommon.  Children might lose fingers or even arms in the machinery.  Even if they didn’t, they were subjected to severe beatings from the overlookers.  Robert’s entire body was almost permanently covered in bruises.  He was made to stand outside, naked, in the cold; was hung from a low beam over moving machinery; and had heavy hand vices and pincers hung from his ears.  By the age of 21, when he was released from his ‘apprenticeship’ he was knock-kneed, his lower legs splaying out to the sides.  Walking would be increasingly difficult as his life progressed. He was also small, with a body disproportionate to the size of his head; and his ears would forever bear the scars of the vices and pincers.

The difference between Robert and perhaps most parish apprentices is that he instinctively knew all this was wrong.  Throughout his fourteen years’ servitude he tried several times to escape and to alert the authorities to the sadistic torture and working conditions endured by the children.  Often, this resulted in even worse treatment for himself, yet he continued.  In fact Acts of Parliament did set down minimum conditions in the mills, but the mill owners were powerful: the country was becoming rich by their efforts, and so the means by which they achieved their output was respectfully overlooked.  Upon his release, Robert worked for short spells in several mills, always moving on because conditions were not to his liking.  Eventually, in his mid-twenties and now in Manchester, he decided the only way to take control of his life was to save every penny he earned, and set up his own waste cotton business.

So how do we know all this about Robert Blincoe?
Somehow his story reached John Brown, a writer of apparent independent means yet suffered from severe ‘melancholy’ and identified with the underdog.  After meeting Robert in 1822 he knew that here, in this small, twisted and scarred yet temperate rather than bitter man, he had found the ideal ‘poster boy’ for the ‘short time’ cause – the struggle to reduce the hours worked in factories and mills from 15 or 16 hours per day to twelve or even ten.  It’s to this nationwide campaign that Waller’s story – parts 4 and 5 – now moves.  Having interviewed Robert and worked his notes into a Memoir, John Brown passed his manuscript to Radical London publisher Richard Carlile.  By the time it was published in 1828 in Carlile’s Radical newspaper The Lion, John Brown had taken his own life.

Publication brought Robert’s story to hundreds of textile workers, artisans, trades unionists and Radical politicians.  As it was told and retold, many corroborated not only his account, but also added their own experiences to the cause.  Significantly, the testimony of all who worked under him evidenced that he never resorted to the violence and cruelty that had been his lot during his formative years.  In April 1832, Manchester trades union leader John Doherty printed an extract from the Memoir in his Radical newspaper, and later that year published the whole thing in pamphlet form.  You can read A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, An Orphan Boy; Sent from the Workhouse of St Pancras, London, at seven years of age, to endure the Horrors of a Cotton Mill, through his infancy and youth, with a minute detail of his sufferings, being the first memoir of the kind published. By John Brown, in its entirety here.

Robert Blincoe was now the poster boy not only for the campaign highlighting working conditions for children, but also for factory reform and the short time cause.  Over the following years the tide started to turn against the cruellest excesses of capitalists and mill owners.  In April 1833, as part of the Commission for Inquiring into the Employment of Children in Factories, four teams of commissioners, each comprising two civil servants and a physician, were sent to the country’s main industrial cities.

Photo taken circa 1858 of man aged about 60.

One of these commissioners was Dr Bisset Hawkins; and it was in Manchester’s York Hotel that he sat with ‘small manufacturer’ Robert Blincoe to hear his story first-hand.  After learning so much of him through the over-blown language of John Brown, reading his own words for the first time, noting his gentle manner and ‘hearing’ his, by now, Lancashire accent, was like meeting an old friend.  It would not be until 8th June, 1847, though, that the Ten Hours Bill finally passed into law.  The photograph, left, was taken around 1858. Robert Blincoe died in 1860, having secured his children positions far exceeding the offspring of his former, cruel, and now bankrupt, employers.  (Yaay! Go Robert!)

Charles’s Dickens’s Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, was published in instalments in 1837-39.  Although there is no absolute proof that Dickens had read Robert Blincoe’s Memoir, it’s almost certain that he did.  There is the same gentle, innately good boy who rises from the workhouse to a better life, the same blood connection (never proven in Robert’s case) to a higher class of person (given the Victorian belief in the innate badness of paupers, this was the only believable explanation for Oliver’s goodness).  Also included is a narrow escape from a master sweep looking to take on an apprentice.  What is absolutely certain, however, is that Fanny Trollope’s The life and adventures of Michael Armstrong, the factory boy, penned after visiting the Manchester factories in 1832 and taking away a copy of the Memoir, was heavily based on Robert Blincoe’s life.

John Waller’s work is magnificent in its breadth of detail.  Using John Brown’s Memoir as his starting point, he is able to verify almost every statement using parish and other records, also corroborated by testimonies of other victims of the system.  Alongside Robert Blincoe’s biography, he also explores the life of John Brown and other key players in the Radical and factory movements.  As the story moves from the personal to the wider campaign for improvement of workers’ conditions, this, too, is fully discussed.  (I wish I could have read it all those years ago when I was doing my history ‘A’ level!)  The book will be of interest to anyone looking to understand more about the Poor Law system, parish apprentices, the Industrial Revolution, conditions in textile mills (one of my interests) and ultimately the success of the campaigns for improvement of working conditions.

It didn’t of course, give me the information I wanted about life as a workhouse orphan in the 1870s and 1880s.  The search for that continues!


Note: The book seems to be out of print, but very inexpensive copies are available second hand from Amazon Marketplace.  Click the image above.

Little Michael, Joseph and Richard

Memorial to the Great Hunger in Ennystimon, Ireland

Gentlemen,
There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about four years, he is an orphan, his father having died last year, and his mother has expired on last Wednesday night who is now about being buried without a coffin!! unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the workhouse gate expecting to be admitted. If not it will starve.
Robs S. Constable

Part of memorial to the Great Famine of 1845-1850 showing small orphaned boy waiting at a door.

There weren’t many records online when I first started my family tree, so for the first ten years I worked on it in fits and starts.  Each time I came back to it there were more collections available, but without easy access to the various Records Offices, progress was limited.

Everything changed in 2010; and this memorial was the catalyst.  It’s to be found a mile outside Ennystimon, in County Clare, directly opposite the hospital which was itself built on the grounds of the former workhouse.  It commemorates those who suffered and perished during the great potato famine of 1845-1850, referred to in Ireland as The Great Hunger or An Gorta Mór.

The memorial text is based on an entry in the Minutes of the Meetings of the Boards of Guardians for Ennistymon Union.  It references actual events of the bitterly cold morning of 25 February 1848.

As soon as I saw this memorial my heart broke for little Michael Rice.  Immediately, I understood why my GG grandparents had left Ireland and come to Leeds.  I had learned about the Potato Blight at school, so I have no idea why the penny hadn’t dropped sooner, but there and then I resolved that as soon as I got home I would honour their memory by returning to my family research and learning more about them.  Well… if you have Irish ancestry you may already understand that I was on a hiding to nothing.  The records simply don’t exist.  In fact it’s only within the last month that, through DNA, testing I’ve made some headway with my Irish folks.  However, before long I made a different, quite shocking discovery

I was searching the 1881 census for my great grandfather Joseph (an English great grandfather, not the Irish line).  Locating a likely record, I opened it up and found him, not within a family group, but a ‘scholar’ within an establishment of some sort.  I still remember the horror as, clicking left to turn the pages until I reached the name and address of the establishment, I saw that Joseph, along with one of his brothers, was in the local workhouse.  Joseph was eleven; his brother Richard was twelve.  Further investigation showed that in 1875, when Joseph was just five years old, his mother died.  Within six months his father was dead too.  Joseph had been in the workhouse since the age of six.  He was my flesh and blood version of little Michael Rice.  I remember dissolving in floods of tears, because Joseph was not some distant, faceless ancestor.  He was my father’s granddad; and I had photos of him – photos suggesting that despite his own tragic start in life, he spoiled his grandson.

Since that day, Joseph has had a special place in my life.  He has, indeed, many stories to tell, and I feel a strong connection to him.  Also since that day, this beautiful yet tragic memorial just outside Ennystimon has taken on additional meaning for me.  It represents the suffering of the Irish people at the hands of mother nature, heartless landlords and the uncaring policies of a remote government in Westminster; it represents my own ancestors who fled County Mayo with the hope of making a better life in Leeds; but it also represents little Joseph and Richard, and their fear and misery as they realised that, having just lost their parents, this, now, was to be their home.

Recording Names: Part 2

Last week we looked at two types of name changes we all have in our trees: women upon marriage and changes from the days before our surnames had settled spellings.

This week I want to move on to deliberate changes of name by the individual.  Here are some examples from my own tree.  Perhaps you have something similar in your own.

Informal adoption
I mentioned a couple of posts back that my great grandfather was given by his mother to her sister in law, who brought him up as her own son.  Prior to The Adoption of Children Act, 1926, adoption was not a legal process, so these types of informal adoption were the norm.  I have no idea if my great grandfather knew that his ‘mother’ was in fact his aunt.  In one census she listed him with his birth name but certainly by adulthood my great grandfather had assumed his adoptive surname, and this was the name passed on to future generations.

Deed poll
A number of people in my extended family changed their name formally by deed poll.  Some changed their first names as well as the surname.

Informal use of a different name
Several people changed their surname without the formality of deed poll.  Some experimented with more than one surname before finally settling on the one they preferred.  Yet more changed names several times on immigration into the United States.  (These took a lot of detective work to find!)  There were a variety of reasons for this, and looking at their wider stories I can see why each of them did it.

How do we record such name changes on our trees?
What distinguishes all these examples from the convention of women changing name upon marriage and historic spelling changes is that here, someone has made a deliberate decision (or had a decision made for them by adoptive parents) regarding how they would like to be known, and our names are such an important part of our identity that I want to honour that decision.  But how do we do this whilst remaining true to the basic rule in genealogy that the name we put on our family tree is the one first recorded for that individual?

I spent some time trying to identify the ‘good practice’ for dealing with this.  It turned out there is no such recognised good practice. 😦

I also don’t think any of the online or software trees deal with it very well.  While all have the capacity to indicate a change of name within the facts timeline, only one name can be shown at the top of the person’s profile.  What do you choose?  Either James and Joanne Bloggs seem to have given birth to two Bloggs children plus another child whose surname is Jones, or we ignore the decision made by that third offspring to be known by another name.  We can of course make use of notes to explain what happened, but what I would like is for the change of name event to trigger a second ‘field’ on the person’s profile, so that it clearly indicates both names, in the format:
Name: John Bloggs
AKA: John Jones.

In the absence of this, my personal solution has been to include both names in the surname field, using the format John Bloggs / Jones.  It may mess up the search facility, but I feel happier with that compromise than with leaving out one of the names.

If you want to explore this further, here’s a useful online discussion on the topic.

And here’s a helpful video from Ancestry outlining reasons why people may have changed their name.  From around 13:15 it deals with different ways of recording those changes on your Ancestry tree.

*****

I’ll be taking a short blog break next week, but will be back as usual the following week.