Frederick Charles, son of Thomas and Alice Cornwell, was born on 5 March 1907 at 15 Clarewood Mews which ran beside 333 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton. Although riverside Lambeth is as old as London itself, Brixton is a nineteenth-century town. The opening of Vauxhall Bridge in 1816, Waterloo in 1817 and Southwark in 1819, with the major roads built to serve them, had made South London newly attractive to city gentry. In 1835 Brixton was described as “a quiet retreat for our London merchants and tradesmen.” The merchants who lived in the desirable new villas of areas such as Angell Town needed horses and carriages, and mews and stables to house them. Brixton’s role as a quiet retreat, however, was short-lived. The building of roads and bridges which had brought substantial middle-class villas to South London was rapidly followed by the building of railways. Between 1850 and 1900, up to 100,000 people in London had their homes destroyed to make way for railways, and the railway companies had no obligation to rehouse them. Railway lines, sidings and marshalling yards, necessary to serve the approaches to terminals across the river, cut through South London’s old villages and new suburbs alike. Huge numbers of displaced persons were on the move within the confines of working-class London, and economic migrants from other parts of the country were drawn in by the prospect of work in these labour-intensive developments. In the 1860s the railways came to Brixton. The area around Loughborough Junction in particular became a maze of lines, bridges and stations. Railways were followed by the horse-drawn trams of the 1870s and Brixton was now on modern transport routes convenient for city and West End. New houses in Brixton were no longer built for carriage folk; indeed some of them moved further out into still leafy suburbs. Some parts of Brixton, such as Acre Lane, remained sylvan and desirably upper middle-class. Most new development, though, was aimed at a growing class of clerks, artisans, and West End shop-workers attracted into Brixton by its transport. They were joined, and their needs were serviced, by the dispossessed poor from other areas of London and rural seekers after city prosperity.
The old mews and new railway arches of Brixton provided homes and work-places for hundreds of families. In the 1871 census 118 people were listed as living in 14 premises in Clarewood Mews, presumably crowded into rooms above the stables. There was one long-established livery company, Sprinks, at number 13 and a couple of cab companies elsewhere in the mews: Edw. Mangan was listed as a greengrocer at 15 Clarewood Mews in Kelly’s commercial directory of 1900. The first mention of Clarewood Mews in our family history is the wedding of Thomas and Alice, Fred’s parents, on Christmas Day 1899: Alice gave 15 Clarewood Mews as her address. The baptismal register of St John’s Church, Angell Town records the way that Thomas and his brothers, William and Henry, with their expanding families moved around between addresses in Clarewood and Canterbury Mews and Sussex Road. In September 1900 when Tom, Fred’s oldest brother, was born to Thomas and Alice, 9 months after their wedding, they lived at 8 Clarewood Mews. In 1902, they were living at 9 Canterbury Mews when they had a second, short-lived son, Henry, and in 1905 when Sid was born they had moved along to 1 Canterbury Mews. By the time Fred was born in 1907, they were back in 15 Clarewood Mews and they were still there in 1909 when John was born. Two weeks before Fred’s birth, his cousin, son of William, was born at 9 Canterbury Mews, once home to Thomas and Alice. Their frequent moves suggests the insecurity of their lives, while the recurrence of addresses within the same family suggests a close-knit family support.
Throughout this time Thomas, Henry and William Cornwell were trying to earn a living. Although their father was a bricklayer’s labourer, their mother’s father a carpenter and their uncle a painter, none of the three brothers became a craftsman. All of them struggled to establish themselves as traders. Brixton in the last quarter of the nineteenth century had established itself as a premier shopping area for South London. Bon Marché, a collection of high-class shops under one splendid roof like a modern shopping mall, was opened in 1876, and Electric Avenue, the first street in London to be lit by electricity, was built in 1881. The glass canopies of Electric Avenue, removed by Lambeth Council in the 1970s, sheltered elegant shops and shoppers. David Greig, a young grocer, opened the first shop in what was to become his large chain, initially in Vining Street, and then transferred it to Atlantic Road. This had been a quiet residential street in 1875 but it had become a street of shops by 1881. The shopkeepers’ displays overflowed onto the pavement and itinerant stall-holders tried to establish pitches. A local press report in 1889 described the Saturday evening scene of crowds “mostly of the working class element wandering between costermongers, barrows and beggars.” Attempts by Lambeth Council and the police to move and prosecute the shopkeepers and stall-holders, and fights between the stall-holders over pitches, went on until 1922 when the market was finally recognised and sited just off Atlantic Road on Pope’s Road and Station Road. The Cornwell brothers were among those fighting, sometimes literally, to join this growing commercial prosperity. Thomas and William are listed variously as general dealer or greengrocer, while Henry was sometimes a general dealer and sometimes a fishmonger. William was listed in Kelly’s Directory as a greengrocer at 9 Canterbury Mews from 1901 until 1912, and Henry was listed as a fishmonger at 10 Canterbury Mews in 1910 and 1911. Presumably they worked, either from the mews, or from the itinerant stalls which they would have kept in the mews, depending on the state of their finances or the activities of the police. William and Henry died in the 1940s, the one a greengrocer, the other a fishmonger.
When Thomas had died in 1938, his fortunes and those of his children had become linked with Edward Mangan who had moved his greengrocer’s from Clarewood Mews to 31 Atlantic Road in 1917. Alice and Thomas stationed a stall when they could outside 31 Atlantic Road and when Brixton market was eventually legalised in 1922 they were allocated two pitches, just around the corner, outside the back entrance of number 31 and underneath the arches of Pope’s Road. These stalls were inherited by Fred and Sid, and are now  worked by Sid’s sons, John and David. In 1920, Mr Mangan moved into 329 Coldharbour Lane which throughout much of the nineteenth century had been listed as the premises of Dibbins and Sons, cowkeepers. In 1886, Dibbins transformed themselves into dairy farmers and in 1900, number 329 became the chief depot of the North Hants Dairy. Around 1920, Thomas and Alice moved into 329 Coldharbour Lane with Mr Mangan. Alice acted as the housekeeper of this substantial house as well as keeping a beady eye on the family business.
By this time all the sons, Tom, Sid, Fred and John, were working in the business of the stalls and shop: there were daily pre-dawn visits to the Borough wholesale market and then long hours on the stalls and in the shop. Tom escaped by migrating to New Zealand in the 1920s but he spent the war years on the stall, having been trapped back in England while paying a return visit. Thus he replaced Fred who was called up in 1940 and spent the next six years in the Middle East, fighting at Tobruk and Alamein before his transfer to Palestine where he remained until he was demobbed in 1946.
On Fred’s return he resumed working on the stalls and in the Atlantic Road shop. After Mr Mangan’s death in 1933 the family had expanded the business, opening shops in two other Brixton markets, Reliance Arcade and Market Row, which became the responsibility of John, the youngest of the sons. They even branched out to a shop in Eltham. The Cornwell grandchildren remember the large yard and sheds behind 329 which housed pigs and chickens during the war, as well as lorries and stalls. Sid and his family took over the house when Alice Cornwell eventually moved out in the late 1940s. 329 Coldharbour Lane, Clarewood Mews, Canterbury Mews and Sussex Road were all demolished in the 1970s to make space for the Coldharbour Lane barrier block and the Moorland Road estate.
Fred’s parents were both born in Lambeth, but although both sets of grandparents were married in St Mary’s Lambeth, all four of them were born outside London. They were part of a large nineteenth-century migration into the cities in general and London in particular.
Thomas Cornwell was born at 2 Sussex Road on 28 March 1871. “The Survey of London”, published in 1956, describes Sussex Road which ran down from Coldharbour Lane just to the east of 329 and Clarewood Mews, as “presenting a remarkable example of monumental design applied to housing of the most humble description.” There were 20 cottages, built early in the nineteenth century. An extract from oral memories of Brixton, published by the Brixton Society in 1984, describes Sussex Road in the 1940s and 50s:
“Sussex Road was an old street – one long terrace of small houses. It was one of the last roads where people lived in the old Cockney tradition, many of them related to each other. They would sit and chat in their small front gardens.”
Certainly many of the families were related to the Cornwells from the 1860s onwards. The 1861 census records Henry Chapman, Fred’s maternal uncle, as living at 7 Sussex Road with his family. Thomas’s parents, William and Jane Cornwell, first appear in Sussex Road in the 1871 census, and thereafter are listed in censuses and Kelly’s until 1908 when, presumably, they were both dead. Henry Cornwell, Thomas’s brother, was living at 28 Sussex Road in 1906 when his son, Edward, was baptised. Rose Davis, Thomas’s sister, lived either in Clarewood Mews or Sussex Grove, a small street leading off Sussex Road: Auntie Lil, Rose’s daughter, remembered her mother waking them up to tell them that “the lights are on in The Palace” (329 Coldharbour Lane) and it was therefore time to start the day. Rose’s son, George, was living at 71 Sussex Road in 1944, when William, his uncle, drew up his will.
Thomas Cornwell was living with his parents at 3 Sussex Road when he married Alice Woodcock on 25 December 1899 at St John’s, Angell Town. He gave his occupation as greengrocer. His daughter-in-law, Margaret, Fred’s wife, used to describe him as wearing for special occasions a white silk scarf, apparently a coster’s best dress. On Sundays he used to go out into Kent and catch birds, which he kept in cages hung from hooks around the kitchen wall in Coldharbour Lane, before selling them. He was also in demand to bite off the tails of pedigree dogs. He died in 1938.
Thomas’s father, James William Cornwell, was baptised at Romford Parish Church on 17 October 1830, the son of James, a labourer, and Hannah. James William was usually described as William, presumably to distinguish him from his father. His sister, Harriet, was baptised at the church in July 1833, but James, Hannah and their children do not appear in the census records for Romford in 1841 and 1851. Just one Cornwell family was living in Romford in those years. In 1841 a William Cornwell was living in Romford High Street with his widowed mother, Joanna, born in Ireland; a sister, Ann; and a 15 year-old brother, Richard, an agricultural labourer. By 1851, this William was the only Cornwell left in Romford: aged 33, he was living in Ray Square with his wife, Rose, and working as a fish vendor. He had been baptised at Romford Parish church in 1817, son of Richard Cornwell (a labourer), and Joanna. The two families were probably related but the fact that there were no other Cornwells in Romford suggests that the Cornwell family was not deeply rooted there. The most likely explanation is that they were part of the nineteenth-century migration of agricultural labourers moving from the often harsh conditions of farm life to the expanding opportunities in the towns. Romford in the early nineteenth century was still a small village, but since Roman days it had been both a staging post on the main road from London to East Anglia and an important agricultural market town. As such it was a natural first step for transients from the eastern counties. The fact that the railway arrived in Romford in 1839 might explain why our Cornwells had moved on before the 1841 census.
James and Hannah disappear from our story, except for a mention of James, a labourer, on his son’s marriage certificate, but William Cornwell, their son, first appears in Lambeth records in the 1851 census when he lived at 22 Camberwell Lane. He was then aged 21 and described as a labourer. 22 Camberwell Lane was a lodging-house run by a widow, Sarah Woodhouse, who had 4 children and a nurse-child living with her as well as 8 lodgers. William (so-called), was one of the lodgers; other lodgers were described as grooms and coachmen and a 12-year-old errand boy was also recorded as a lodger; it is not specified how many rooms were available for the 14 people who lived in that house. Camberwell Lane seems to have been around the same, broadly East Brixton area, as other roads in this family history, but it disappears from directories around 1875. At 18 Camberwell Lane, according to the 1851 census another densely populated house, lived George and Rebecca Cornwell and their 2 children. George was 29 years old, worked as a bricklayer’s labourer, and was born in Romford. The likelihood is that he was William’s older brother.
Also at 18 Camberwell Lane, lived Henry Chapman, his wife, Mary, and 6 children. One of those children was Jane Chapman, then aged 14, who later became William Cornwell’s wife, mother of Thomas and grandmother to Fred. Jane Chapman’s father, Henry, according to the 1851 census, was a carpenter who was 47 years old and had beenborn in “Stapeden” Herts. (In the 1861 census, Henry gave his place of birth as Burchingfield,Herts. Neither Stapeden nor Burchingfield exist. However Standon and Buntingford are geographically close in Hertfordshire and it seems likely that Henry was born in one or other of those villages. Unfortunately the Hertfordshire archive service can find no record of Henry’s birth in any of their parish records. One possible explanation is that Henry was baptised in a non-conformist chapel.) Jane’s mother, Mary, was said to be aged 44 in 1851, and gave her place of birth as St Luke’s, Middlesex likeJane herself, and Henry, her 17-year-old brother working as an errand boy in 1851. Thomas, Emma and Rose Chapman, Jane’s younger siblings, had all been born in Lambeth. St Luke’s is a district of London, still marked on the A-Z atlas around Old Street, EC1, and bordering on Finsbury, the City of London and Shoreditch. Before the London County Council was created in 1888, London districts were described as either Surrey (south of the river), or Middlesex (north of the river). Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race commentaries referring to the Surrey or Middlesex banks still reflect this. Jane, as an adult, variously gave her place of birth as City of London, Stepney, or, eventually, Brixton. Jane, and Henry, were born before the introduction of national civil registrations.in 1837.
Mary, their mother, was baptised in St Luke’s Church, Old Street, in July 1809, but I could find no record of Jane and Henry’s baptism there or in other Anglican city churches. This supports the theory that Henry’s family were non-conformist, possibly Baptist.
Jane Chapman and William Cornwell were married on 9 March 1857 at St Mary’s Church, the parish church of Lambeth, just outside the walls of Lambeth Palace. This church, originally built in 1370, had been largely rebuilt in 1852, just 5 years before the Cornwell wedding. It became redundant in the early 1970s but it is now open as a garden museum. From then on William and Jane Cornwell’s progress is easy to follow through birth certificates and censuses. In November 1860 when their son, George, was born they lived at 10 Ann’s Court, Robert Street, Kennington, and they were living there for the 1861 census. Ann’s Court and Robert Street no longer exist. The chances are that Ann’s Court was more likely to have been an overcrowded court-yard slum than the bijou residence such a name might suggest today. William still described himself as a labourer, born in Romford, but he had begun to get confused about his age, a common problem for those born before the 1837 compulsory registration of births deaths and marriages. In 1861, he claimed to be 27; in 1871, 35; and then he settled for increasing his age by 10 years in 1881 and 1891. In 1861, Jane gave ‘City of London’ as her place of birth. By the 1871 census, Jane and William had already moved into Sussex Road where they lived for the next 30 years. Jane’s brother Henry, an errand boy in 1851 and now a painter, had been living in Sussex Road as early as 1861 with his wife, another Mary.
Thomas, Fred’s father, was born in Sussex Road on 28 March 1871. He was just too late to be included in the 1871 census, when his parents had two children: George aged 9 and Jane aged 7. William’s occupation in the 1871 census for the first time is given as a bricklayer’s labourer, the same as that of his brother George in the 1851 census. There was a large amount of building going on in Brixton and William seems to have worked regularly: in five censuses taken over 40 years he was never listed as unemployed. But a bricklayer would have been only a casual employee, dependent on weather, the goodwill of contractors, and the economic climate: unemployed building workers were often found swelling the crowds of street traders in harsh winters. The censuses of 1871 and 1881 show Jane adding to the family income by working as a laundress. William was still listed as a bricklayer’s labourer in 1881 and 1891 (when he would have been 61 years old). In the 1891 census, Thomas, aged 20, was described as a general dealer (Charles Booth in “Life and Labour of the People in London”, classified general dealers as “small itinerant merchants” distinguishing them from street sellers, who stayed put, offering their stock from a stall, a barrow or a basket). William, aged 17, was also a general dealer: Rose was a domestic servant aged 15, and Harry, 13 years old, was still at school. Now that she had three children earning money, as well as a working husband, Jane was able to give up work, and in 1891 she was no longer described as a laundress. Jane and William must have felt that they had achieved some modest success. While many of their contemporaries were without decent homes or regular employment, they had progressed from overcrowded lodging houses to live for over 30 years in one road, surrounded by family, and William seems to have been in steady work throughout his life. Thomas was still living with his parents in Sussex Road, his birthplace, when he married Alice Emma Woodcock on 25 December 1899.
Like her husband, Alice had been born in Lambeth to parents who were new Londoners. She was born on 1 December 1880 at 1 Neptune Cottages, South Lambeth. This street, now gone, was part of a network of houses off the Wandsworth Road between present-day Wyvil and Wilcox Roads. Her father, Arthur Woodcock, was a railway goods shunter when Alice was born. He probably worked at Nine Elms, the huge railway complex which dominated the area and which in 1880 was one of the biggest goods terminals in Britain. Railways had changed life throughout Britain but nowhere had their effect been larger than in Battersea, which until 1838 had been a small village, clustered around its church and surrounded by market gardens, famous for “Battersea Bundles” of asparagus. In 1838, the Southampton Railway, later the South Western Railway, built its London terminal at Nine Elms: locomotive works and gas works followed: Battersea’s population grew from 5,540 in 1831 to 107,262 in 1881. The Nine Elms area was a slum with intolerably dirty, noisy railways, especially near the overhead line from Nine Elms to Waterloo, built in 1848. Alice’s father and her maternal grandparents were numbered among that vast surge of newcomers, enduring the slums of Nine Elms in order to find jobs and the other opportunities that London could offer.
Her father, Arthur Woodcock, had come along the Thames from Mortlake, where he had been born in Back Alley on 31 October 1853. Back Alley as a name, not surprisingly, has disappeared, but its most likely location is what is now called Vineyard Path, which runs from Sheen Lane to Church Path. Many of the old alleyways of Mortlake still exist, a reminder of the field crossings which once criss-crossed all that is now London. In Mortlake’s case they were largely preserved because the then vestry opposed the coming of the railway in 1846, and limited its cuttings through Mortlake. Motorists trying to avoid the South Circular Road today, and confronting the level crossings and narrow bridges of Mortlake and Barnes, have ample time to reflect upon this. Vineyard Path, once Back Alley, probably dates from about 1543 when Mortlake Parish Church was rebuilt on its present site. Arthur’s parents, Joseph and Mary Woodcock, were buried in the parish churchyard and their gravestones were still decipherable until the early 1970s.
Early nineteenth-century Mortlake then, as now, was a pleasant suburb of London, but the differences in Mortlake between the life-styles of the rich and of the poor were even greater than now. Mortlake in the first years of the nineteenth century provided mansions for the rich, many of them in attendance on the Hanoverian Court which until Queen Victoria came to the throne was centred on Richmond and Kew. At the same time it provided some of the worst conditions in outer London for the poor. In 1852 a report for the Registrar General on the mortality from cholera in England showed that deaths in Mortlake were more than treble the national average. Out of 50 cases there were 22 deaths from Asiatic cholera, “arising from defective drainage, deficient ventilation, overcrowding and intemperance by inhabitants.” The labouring poor in Mortlake worked in the brewery, on the estates of the aristocratic rich or in the market gardens which like those of Battersea served the markets of London. Mortlake’s produce depended on river transport: goods to market, and manure in return from London. Richmond’s sewers emptied from Back Alley, near the Ship Inn (which still exists) and, in return for horticultural produce, barges from London discharged domestic manure at Ship Lane.
Joseph Woodcock was born in Mortlake and baptised in the Parish Church in August 1822, following three older sisters. His parents were Thomas, a labourer, and Maria. In September 1804 at St Mary’s Church, Putney, a Thomas Woodcock had married a Maria Sawyer. The coincidence of place, names and dates suggest that this Thomas and Maria were Joseph Woodcock’s parents. Joseph, like his father, gave his occupation as ‘labourer’ on 28 April 1843 when he married Mary Myford at Hammersmith Parish Church, and so too did Mary’s father, John Myford. Hammersmith Parish Church is St Paul’s, Queen Caroline Street, the church which now lurks amid the thicket of roads by the turn-off to the M4. St Paul’s, then an old chapel, was designated as the parish church when Hammersmith was created a separate parish in 1834, but the church was rebuilt in the 1880s. Mary Myford was baptised at St Marylebone Church on 24 October 1821, daughter of John, a labourer, and Ann. Myford is an unusual name: there are only two Myfords in the 1994 London telephone directory and few in the St Catherine’s House national registers. There are no clues to how Joseph Woodcock, apparently so settled in Mortlake, could have met Mary Myford from north of the Thames. Once married, Joseph and Mary returned to Mortlake where they were listed in the 1851 census as the only Woodcocks in Mortlake. Presumably Thomas and Maria Woodcock had died.
In 1851, Joseph and Mary were living in Sourtis Row, Mortlake, an address which no longer exists. Married in 1843, they already had 3 children, Joseph, Jane and Lucy: Joseph, according to the census, was an agricultural labourer in Richmond Park. At this time, the park was still a Royal Demesne, cultivated mainly for the produce of venison for the Royal Family, and the position of Ranger of Richmond Park, attracting an official residence, was a sinecure post for a junior member of the Royal Family. During the last part of the nineteenth century there was a huge amount of work in Richmond Park. Additions were made to the deer herds and new husbandry methods were tried: areas of the park were made more accessible, eventually to the general public.
Michael Baxter Brown in his book,’Richmond Park: The history of a Royal Deer Park‘ and David McDowall in ‘Richmond Park, The Walker’s Historical Guide‘, both refer to a James Sawyer and his son who were successively head keepers of the park and who lived in the lodge now known as Holly Lodge. James Sawyer became head keeper in 1795 and his son succeeded him in 1825. It is possible, though not proven, that Maria Sawyer was a daughter of James Sawyer, the head keeper. This could explain her son’s employment in the Park.
We already know that by 1853, when Arthur Woodcock, Fred’s grandfather, was born, Joseph and Mary Woodcock had moved to Back Alley, Mortlake, and that Joseph was working as a labourer in Richmond Park. In December 1856 when another son, Frank, was born, they were living at 11 Model Cottages, Mortlake, and Joseph had become a ‘cowman’. Model Cottages is probably the only address in our family history which still exists. On the Upper Richmond Road at East Sheen there are two supermarkets, Safeway and Waitrose, and through the Safeway car-park there is a narrow drive-way to Model Cottages. The only other entrance to Model Cottages is a footpath from Beechcroft Road, SW14. Model Cottages were built between 1852 and 1858 by a charity, the Mortlake Labourers’ Friends Society. Today they exist as a cottage garden oasis just behind the traffic of the South Circular Road. By nineteenth-century standards, these were utopian dwellings. According to Charles Hailstone, writing for the Barnes and Mortlake History Society in 1983,
“each cottage was supplied with spring water from a pump in the kitchen sink. There were no damp courses. Tenants were encouraged only to grow vegetables in the gardens and not to take in lodgers, as this could cause overcrowding and defeat one of the great objects of model dwellings, which was to deter disease and in particular the cholera.”
The 1861 census shows that some of the other householders in Model Cottages were butlers, grooms, or other domestic servants, and in 1861 Joseph himself was listed as a domestic gardener. We have to conclude that Joseph Woodcock must have had a benefactor, possibly his Sawyer relatives, who nominated him for tenancy in these ideal dwellings. Again according to Hailstone, 11 and 12 Model Cottages were built around 1856, so Arthur’s brother Frank was possibly the first child born in the cottages.
In 1871, Arthur, aged 17, was still living with his parents in Model Cottages and was listed in the census as a ‘groom/domestic servant’. By 1874, however, he had moved to Neptune Street, South Lambeth. This was his address when he married Louisa Gray at St Mary’s, Lambeth on 28 December 1874. Louisa was 18 and Arthur was 20. He gave his occupation, surprisingly, as police constable: Joseph, his father, equally surprisingly, gave his occupation as carpenter; and Henry Gray, Louisa’s father, was listed as an ostler. Our next record of Arthur and Louisa is their daughter Alice’s birth certificate. She was born at 1 Neptune Cottages, presumably a turning off Neptune Street, on 1 December 1880 and Arthur was by that time working as a railway goods shunter. The family were still living at the Cottages for the 1881 census, taken just a few months later, and Arthur was still a railway goods shunter. They already had two children older than Alice Louisa, aged 3, and a son, listed as J.A. Arthur’s work as a railway goods shunter is less surprising than the police constable aberration. Horses still provided much of the locomotive power around the railway yards and Arthur had started work as a groom. Arthur and Louisa had left Neptune Cottages by the time of the 1891 census and they disappear from our story.
* * *
While Arthur had made his own way from the still rural backwater of Mortlake to newly industrialized Nine Elms, Louisa Gray’s parents, Henry and Elizabeth, had brought her from Wiltshire to Lambeth as a child, some time in the 1860s. Louisa had been born in Laverstock, now virtually a suburb of Salisbury, divided from the city by the River Bourne and a railway line. The church where Louisa was baptised was rebuilt at the end of the nineteenth century and little of nineteenth-century Laverstock remains. The Grays seem to have lived in Laverstock only briefly. In 1856 when his daughter was born, Henry Gray, like his son-in-law later, was described as a policeman but Henry’s police career, like Arthur’s, seems to have been brief. He had been listed as an agricultural labourer in the 1841 census when he was barely 14 years old. This was in his birth-place, Mere, Wiltshire, a small town on the Wiltshire Downs, just off the modern A303. M.F.Tighe gave a talk to the Mere Historical Society in February 1995, based on a study of the 1851 census, and describing Mere in 1851. The text of this fascinating and scholarly talk has been printed and is sold for 20p [sic] to raise funds for The Friends of the Parish Church.
According to Tighe, Mere’s population of 3,000 in 1851 was largely dependent on agriculture – agricultural labourers and allied trades such as millers, harness makers, blacksmiths. But Mere had also been a mill town for hundreds of years, with a flourishing flax industry and mills employing large numbers of people. In addition, silk was produced there in the first half of the nineteenth century. Both flax and silk industries died out by 1860, killed by competition from new factories in the north of England and Ulster. The work while it lasted was, according to Tighe, poorly paid, and the silk spinning depended largely on the labour of girls as young as 11. Tighe repeatedly draws attention to the low wage rates, not only in Mere, but in Wiltshire and Dorset in general, which he claims were the lowest in the country. They were far from the new industrial towns where the demand for labour drew off a surplus population. He points out that whereas farmers declared themselves as employing 226 agricultural labourers, 438 persons listed themselves as agricultural labourers. The farmers probably counted only those they employed regularly; the others constituted a pool of casual and seasonal labour, depressing wages. The effect was that “the weekly wage of a labourer in South Wilts ranged from 6s to 8s per week, less than half of what his Lancashire counterpart would earn.”
Tighe’s local history is supported by many historians of nineteenth-century rural England, including G E Mingay, who in 1977 referred to “southern Wiltshire, the nadir of poor farm wages.” Wiltshire labourers joined the agricultural riots of 1830, known as the “Swing Riots”; and the most serious Wiltshire uprisings took place at Pyt House, not many miles from Mere. According to the Hammonds in their book, “The Village Labourer 1760 – 1832“, Lord Arundel described the Pyt House area as “a Parish in which the Poor have been more oppressed and are in greater misery as a whole than in any Parish in the Kingdom.” John Benett MP, the owner of Pyt House, employer of the rioting labourers, was also the magistrate who committed them for trial at Salisbury and served as foreman of the Grand Jury. Two men were sentenced to death and later reprieved; 154 sentenced to transportation to Australia. Of a total of 457 eventually transported as a result of these riots, 151 came from Wiltshire; Hampshire sent 100; 11 other counties contributed the remaining 206 exiles. The Hammonds, writing in 1911, described the doom which struck every village on the Wiltshire Downs and commented that
“the shadow of this vengeance still darkens the minds of old men and women in the villages of Wiltshire, and eighty years have been too short a time to blot out its train of desolating memories.”
Fortunately for his descendants, Henry Gray did not choose to spend his life as an under-paid agricultural labourer sharing the depressed memories of rural Wiltshire. The records of his life, as charted in censuses, marriage and birth certificates, show him always on the move although his ancestors had lived in Mere for centuries..Henry was baptised in Mere parish church in July 1827, son of Elizabeth and Joseph Gray, a labourer, who had himself been baptised in Mere church in October 1788.Joseph’s parents in turn were John Gray, baptised in Mere on 11 November 1761 and Lucy Wright, baptised in the same church in December 1765. By the time of the 1841 census, Henry was one of six children living at home. An older brother, Charles, aged 15, was a blacksmith’s apprentice while Henry was a 14-year-old agricultural labourer. Joseph Gray was listed as a miller, a considerable advance in fortunes from his designation as a labourer when Henry was baptised in 1827: according to Tighe there were only two millers in Mere in 1851. On the other hand, if Joseph were an independent miller, it seems strange that neither of his sons was working with him. Perhaps he was a miller’s labourer, or perhaps he worked in one of the flax mills. In any case, his son, Henry, had become a sawyer by 1850 when, on 10 September, he married Elizabeth Feltham in West Knoyle parish church. Joseph was still described as a miller and George Feltham, Elizabeth’s father, was a thatcher. Elizabeth was able only to “make her mark” on the parish register, but Henry, his brother Charles, and his sister, Sarah, the witnesses, were able to sign.
Elizabeth Feltham was married in the large parish church where she had been baptised in October 1830, the daughter of George and Jane Feltham, who had also married in West Knoyle church, on 22 December 1806. Jane Feltham, Elizabeth’s mother, had been Jane Parsons, baptised in West Knoyle in February 1784. West Knoyle is a tiny village a few miles east of Mere. In 1851 it had a population of 180, which had shrunk to 130 by 1982: in the 1841 West Knoyle census, where Elizabeth and an older brother, also George, and also a thatcher, were listed as living with their parents, children as young as 9 were described as agricultural labourers. The younger George had been baptised in West Knoyle in June 1818, but George, the father, was baptised on Boxing Day 1785 in East Knoyle, a somewhat larger neighbouring village. East Knoyle is on today’s tourist trail as the birthplace of Christopher Wren, whose father had been rector of the parish in the seventeenth century. George’s great-grandfather, John Feltham, is the first Feltham I can find in the East Knoyle parish records. He was baptised there in 1692 and married Ann Fletcher, also of East Knoyle, on 26 June 1720. Wiltshire thatchers were famed for their skills and there are still thatchers living and working in East Knoyle. Sadly, there are no Felthams working as thatchers there today but Feltham is still a common name in that area of Wiltshire, and so is Gray.
After their marriage in West Knoyle in 1850, Henry and Elizabeth Gray moved on to Melksham where their son, Fred, was born in about 1854. By 1856, when Fred Cornwell’s grandmother, Louisa, was born, they were living in Laverstock, and Henry was described as a policeman, but a year later Albert, another son, was born in Mere, back in Henry’s birthplace. By 1861 they had moved to London: George, Alice, Emma and Frank, their younger children, were all born in Lambeth, between about 1862 and 1872. They appear in the 1871 census, living at 10 Neptune Street, South Lambeth. Henry Gray, then aged 43, listed his occupation as ‘horsekeeper’. He was probably a stableman at Nine Elms railway depot. Indeed it was probably Nine Elms, terminus of the Southampton railway, which had drawn the Grays to London. The London Southampton Railway, first opened in 1838 and later called the South Western Railway, had gradually spread branch lines throughout Wiltshire, reducing the isolation of villages and opening the possibility of migration to London. Unfortunately, Neptune Street was the end of Henry’s travels: by the time of the 1881 census, Elizabeth Gray was listed as a widow. She gave her employment as ‘monthly nurse’ and had a ‘nurse-child’, Alfred Featherstone, aged 4 months, living with her at the time of the census. Louisa, as we have seen, had married Arthur Woodcock in December 1874, and three of the other children had left home. Elizabeth was left with Fred, who at the age of 28 was still living at home and was unemployed; and with two younger children, Emma aged 12, and Frank aged 9. Her daughter, Louisa Woodcock, was living nearby at 1 Neptune Cottages with her family of three children, including Alice Emma (who was to be Fred Cornwell’s mother).
The 1881 census is our last glimpse of Alice’s parents or of her grandmother, Elizabeth Gray. They were not living in Neptune Street or Neptune Cottages for the 1891 census. Nor were they living in Clarewood Mews, Brixton, the address Alice gave when she married Thomas Cornwell in December 1899. A family story is that when Alice was about 13 years old, her mother died or left the family, and that Alice supported herself by selling mint and beetroot in Brixton. This would explain how Alice met Thomas, but not what led her to Brixton.
What we can surmise is that living over the stables in crowded Clarewood Mews was not an easy start to married life, and we know that Thomas and Alice were moving every few years. Nevertheless both of them came from families which had struggled to succeed. Cornwells, Chapmans, Woodcocks and Grays had all refused to accept the lowly laborious fate which had seemed their birthright, and they had been among the early pioneers who migrated from rural labour in search of the greater opportunities of the city. They had done this before radio had largely standardised speech and when the accents of Londoners would have seemed like a foreign language to those brought up with the dialects and accents of Hertfordshire Chapmans, of Wiltshire Grays, of Essex Cornwells, and perhaps of Woodcocks from the north. They moved at a time when the majority of rural dwellers never travelled further than 20 or 30 miles from their birthplace. And they moved before universal education, mass newspapers, or even male suffrage, had begun the broadening of horizons which came later in the nineteenth century. Fred Cornwell and his brothers, spending their infancy among the stables of Clarewood Mews and from an early age working on stalls under the railway arches of Brixton, were only one generation removed from the agricultural labourers and thatchers of Wiltshire, the agricultural labourers of Mortlake and Romford, the horsekeepers and grooms in the horrors of unregulated Victorian industrial conditions in Nine Elms. George Feltham, the Wiltshire thatcher, born about 1785, was Fred Cornwell’s great-great-grandfather. George’s life was probably not very different from that of his great-great-grandfather, possibly also a Wiltshire thatcher, who might have known Christopher Wren. But to George Feltham, Fred’s life experiences, and certainly the lives of Fred’s descendants, would seem like the lives of aliens. Those of the family who had started the transition to a more modern world and who helped to build it, might have found it easier to accept the changes.