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.

Book Review: Flesh and Blood: a history of my family in seven maladies

Something I enjoy about the early months each year is the return of the BBC series Call the Midwife.  It’s fascinating to see the progress of time, with world events set against the backdrop of London’s working-class Poplar district.  I particularly appreciate the ‘goodness’ of the main characters, dealing with others without judgment.  One of these characters is Dr Turner, played by Stephen McGann.

I’m not a follower of celebrities, and I knew nothing about Stephen McGann’s background, but when I learned a few months ago that he was a keen genealogist and had written a book about his family’s history, I decided to read it.  The original title is Flesh and Blood: a history of my family in seven maladies.  For some reason, in the paperback version the last words have been amended to seven sicknesses.  My assumption was that, through the generations, successive family members had met their end as a result of contracting one or other of the same seven illnesses, and that since manner of death is often linked to work and living conditions, this aided his understanding of how his ancestors lived.  I also assumed that in setting out his family’s history within this framework McGann was giving a nod to the role he’s best known for – the kind doctor in Call the Midwife.  Well, I wasn’t entirely right, and it wasn’t until the final few pages that I fully understood why he used this framework.  It was also not entirely a book about family history, in the sense that the final three chapters are autobiographical – and to tell the truth I wouldn’t normally read an autobiography.  Nevertheless, this was a book that made me think a lot about my own ancestry; and it’s for that reason that I’m reviewing it here.

Stephen McGann’s family history overlaps with my own in a number of ways, but primarily in that we’re both descended on one line from great great grandparents who fled Ireland because of the Potato Famine, or ‘The Great Hunger’ as it’s remembered in Ireland.  This famine, brought on by successive years of total failure of the potato crop caused by a fungal disease known as the potato blight, brought Ireland to its knees between 1845 and around 1852.  During this time, one million people starved to death and a further one and a half million left the country.  Predictably, then, the malady dealt with in the first chapter is ‘Hunger’.  It’s a very good, accessible introduction to the events, and to the terrible attitude of the landlords in Ireland and the government in the United Kingdom which made a horrifyingly tragic situation even worse.  Stephen McGann’s ancestors, Owen and Susan McGann, fled Roscommon.  My own ancestors fled neighbouring Mayo but probably didn’t meet until they reached Leeds.

Yet the starvation that killed so many back in Ireland continued to haunt those who fled, since when they reached their destinations they were hungry, destitute, clothed in rags and without work or shelter.  Relief for the poor wasn’t available through the ordinary channels, since Poor Law Relief in England was based upon residency rights within the parish.  Many of course would have disembarked at Liverpool.  Those who remained there, like Stephen McGann’s great great grandparents, would find shelter, as many as thirty to a room, in stinking, unsanitary hovels alongside the docks.  And the coroners began to record case after case of death by malnutrition.

If they were strong and worked hard, the men and older boys would find work at the docks.  By the 1870s, nine tenths of the ships arriving in Liverpool Docks would be unloaded and reloaded by the Irish; and some had even risen to positions such as stevedore gang leader or warehouseman.  With the reasonably regular income, a family would be able to rent a single room in the buildings arranged over three floors around courtyards called ‘courts’ – an infinitely better habitation but nevertheless breeding grounds for those diseases that go hand in hand with poverty and overcrowding in squalid conditions.  The second chapter of McGann’s family history is therefore called ‘Pestilence’.  There is, however, an interesting dual use of the word: firstly, meaning an infectious, virulent epidemic disease; and secondly meaning ‘an entity that is morally destructive or pernicious’.  Here, the reference is to ‘the Liverpool-Irish’.  It’s clear that from the very beginning Irish migrants were held responsible for the situation they found themselves in, as if somehow the poverty was brought about by their own moral shortcomings: ‘paupers [not only] by circumstance, but by social propensity.’  This theme continues throughout the book, and is well illustrated, no more so than in the events surrounding the Hillsborough Disaster of 15th April 1989.  McGann was actually there.  He writes: ‘In order to deflect blame, [police] officers had deliberately leaked misinformation to the press.  They claimed that Liverpool fans had caused the tragedy by their own drunken behaviour and actions – even accusing these fans of urinating on police officers and picking the pockets of their own dead.’  And since these untruths resonated with the wider public view about the moral character of the Liverpool fans – specifically the Liverpool-Irish – initially the wider public lapped it all up.  It shocked me that I had never quite made that connection: that the ‘problem’ with the Liverpool supporters was that in the wider public perception they remained the lazy, ‘morally corrupt’ hordes who lived in filth when they first arrived and didn’t seem to mind.

I started to think about my own Irish roots. The same four generations separate me from my Irish ancestors, and yet my experience has been so different.  Why?  Was it because of the surname?  Stephen McGann has a direct paternal line to these great great grandparents; mine are the maternal grandparents of my paternal grandfather: the surname was lost three generations back.  Was it because of religion?  Even though the McGann men didn’t marry Irish girls, they did all marry Roman Catholics.  That religious connection was lost within my family when my Leeds-born great grandmother – having married a likely godless Englishman within the Roman Catholic church then died young, leaving no-one to keep the faith alive.  When their son, my grandfather, married within the Church of England this, presumably, finally severed ties with our Irish ancestry, about which little is known.  Even in the early days, although my great great grandparents lived in the poorest part of Leeds, their neighbours were local people and Jews as well as Irish, which probably accelerated assimilation.  Without the massive population of Liverpool’s dockside, perhaps the identification with Irish culture died out with the original migrants.  Certainly this is something I’d now like to explore for my Irish family in this area of Leeds.

The further I progressed with this book the more certain I was that I would not have arranged it around a framework of maladies.  I’d have used a wider framework of social policy, social change and injustice.  And then I realised that this was the point: that we are the ones left to tell the story, and we can only do that through our own filters.  We will each focus on what seems to us interesting or noteworthy, and omit the rest, and what leaps out as noteworthy to Stephen McGann, to you or to me will not always coincide.  In this sense, then, any family history is on some level a kind of autobiography, even if our own life’s stories form no part of it.

The ancestors Stephen McGann writes about are ordinary people, just like most of mine, and probably most of yours.  Yet the story of a nation, of an era, of a major event – they would be nothing without the individual stories of the many thousands of ordinary people who played their part.  It’s true, though, that some of our ancestors have more interesting tales to tell; and one story, about a great uncle, took my breath away.  All but forgotten in his family prior to McGann’s research, his testimony following a major tragedy at sea could have changed history’s view of an aspect of that event, had he been sufficiently less ‘ordinary’ – sufficiently less Liverpool-Irish, you might say – to be invited to give evidence.  You’ll have to read the book to find out more!

This book is well written and accessible.  McGann supports his arguments with excerpts from original sources that you could follow up if you need to know more.  For the benefit of readers who don’t know how genealogy works, he explains how he used the various family history documents such as civil BMDs and census records to find out more about his ancestors.  It goes without saying that it would appeal to Stephen McGann fans, and avid autobiography readers; but it may also be of interest to any British descendants of the Irish diaspora, whether your ancestors settled in Liverpool or elsewhere.  Clearly, the Liverpool history is a big part of this book, and for me it served as a sort of companion to the excellent BBC series A House Through Time., which at the time of writing is available via BBC iPlayer.  Finally, I think it would be of interest to anyone thinking of writing up their own family history and thinking through ways of setting down the information.

Click the image to find the book on Amazon (affiliate link).

Book Review: The Dead on Leave

I know where my mother was on 28th September 1936.  Aged only twelve, she had walked the short distance from her home to Holbeck Moor to watch as Oswald Mosley arrived, flanked by a thousand members of the British Union of Fascists (BUF).  The march commenced a mile or so away, at Calverley Street in the centre of Leeds, although the BUF had planned a longer route.  They had been forbidden by the authorities to march through the Leylands district, which for more than a century had been the ‘melting pot’ of Leeds, where newcomers, including Irish and Jewish immigrants, lived side by side with the working classes.  Even so, the night before the march, swastikas and slogans appeared throughout Leylands on shopfronts and businesses owned by Jewish residents.

By the time Mosley and his Blackshirts reached Holbeck Moor, 30,000 Leeds residents – most of them Communist Party members or Labour supporters – were waiting for them.  As Mosley took to the stage the crowd roared out The Red Flag.

I strongly suspect my grandparents didn’t know their daughter was there.  Decades later, she described the Blackshirts, hate written all over their faces, and expressed her pride for the men of Leeds who, having no time for fascism, threw stones in the direction of the stage.  She didn’t mention that Mosley was hit – I now know that the man who threw that particular stone was 19 year old John Hodgson from Leeds.  It’s astonishing what you can learn on the Internet!

By coincidence, exactly one week later, on Sunday 4th October, the far more famous Battle of Cable Street took place, as many thousands prevented Mosley from marching his Blackshirts through the East End.  My father in law, then a young man, was amongst those protestors.

It must have been about five years ago that I came across an article online about The Battle of Holbeck Moor.  I realised immediately this was the event my mother had told me about.  It was during an exchange of comments with the author of a similar article on the 28th September last year, commemorating 82 years since the event, that this novel, The Dead on Leave, was recommended to me.  It opens with events surrounding the Battle.

The 1930s was a difficult time for my mother’s family – an experience shared with many more throughout the land.  My granddad was out of work for several years, and it was perhaps from personal experience that on another occasion my mother made reference to the Means Test Investigators who would visit the homes of the unemployed.  ‘All of this would have had to go,’ she said, with an expansive sweep of her arm to indicate the china cabinet and its contents of treasures, almost all of sentimental rather than great financial value.  Again, the term ‘Means Test Investigator’ was not one she would have known.  So it was with interest that I learned a significant character in Chris Nickson’s novel was one of these Investigators.  Their powers were far greater than I had imagined, with authority to turn up unannounced, carry out thorough searches of the house and dock payments to the deemed value of any family ‘treasures’.

I didn’t expect to enjoy this novel; rather I was reading it to harvest facts about the period.  But I was immediately drawn in.  The characters were well-drawn, the sense of place spot-on, and the murder detective storyline gripping.  I got a real sense of Leeds as it was in the 1930s: the Depression, the ongoing tension between the Far Right and the Left, the rehousing of people from the old back-to-back housing to the local authority cottage estates with their spacious rooms and gardens, and even the high incidence of bronchial problems due to air pollution.  This was the ‘grim, industrial North’, after all; and my impression was that in the 1930s it was indeed grim.

I recommend this book to anyone with a historical interest in Leeds, the industrial North, the battle against fascism, or life in general during the 1930s Depression.  I’ve already found a whole series of police detective novels by the same author set in Victorian Leeds, and plan to start working my way through them too.

Click the image to find the book on Amazon (affiliate link).

Finding Mrs Fezziwig

Last month I played Mrs Fezziwig in the Alan Menken / Lynn Ahrens musical production of A Christmas Carol.  As part of my preparation, I re-read the original Charles Dickens story on which the musical is based.

The kindly Fezziwigs feature as one of the happier memories from Ebenezer Scrooge’s life.  Guided by the Ghost of Christmas Past, he revisits the warehouse from where Mr Fezziwig runs his business, to enjoy once again a fine Christmas Eve party where food, friendship, wine, song and enthusiastic dancing are the order of the day, and everyone is welcome.

Reading the original account of that long-ago Christmas Eve party, I realised something that wasn’t made clear in the musical.  As a young man, Scrooge had not merely worked for Mr Fezziwig; he had been apprenticed to him.  Understanding the apprenticeship system before the Industrial Revolution is an important part of genealogy.  Evidence of an apprenticeship may open the door to a whole range of records, including trades guild membership, freedom of the city or town, perhaps an entry in historic local directories, and much more.

Dickens didn’t think it necessary to tell us what, precisely, was the nature of Mr Fezziwig’s trade.  However, lost, by now in the challenge before me I realised I could easily find the information I needed.  There should be a record of the apprenticeship agreement, probably held at the London Metropolitan Archives.  As a master of his trade, Mr Fezziwig would have been a member of the appropriate London Livery Company; and upon completion of his apprenticeship, young Scrooge would have been eligible for membership too – generating more records.  Depending on the dates, the apprenticeship may also have been recorded on the UK, Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices’ Indentures, 1710-1811, and with names like Fezziwig and Ebenezer Scrooge they would be easy enough to track down.  This would also provide Mr Fezziwig’s first name, which would help me to find his marriage, and by extension the first name of Mrs Fezziwig, which should enable me to find her baptism and perhaps information about her background…  By the time I remembered that Scrooge and the Fezziwigs were fictional characters, I had quite the mental To-Do List!

Be warned!  Genealogy is strongly addictive and can addle your brain!  It can transport you to previous time zones, while causing a serious loss of all sense of time in the present one.  ‘Just quickly checking this record’ can turn into hours following through from one rich, newly-discovered seam of records to the next.  It may provoke concerned glances between loved ones when you tell them what you’d really like for Christmas this year is a handful of death certificates.  And it may ignite a previously unknown wanderlust for holidays in the most unlikely of places (‘You want us to spend a week visiting disused MINES????!!’)

It’s on that cautionary note that I’ll end my genealogical jottings for 2018.  I’ll be back in January with more.

In the meantime, to those of you who celebrate, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.