Until We ‘Meat’ Again: the Life and Times of Sheffield Butcher Joseph Innocent Howard

The following is an extract from the first chapter of a planned work arising from the lives and stories encountered in preparing stones of interest for the @AGraveAnnounce account. As such, it is considerably longer than a standard post. It is my intention that the piece will be further honed and refined before forming part of a more extended study. As ever, all feedback is gratefully received! 

Joseph Innocent Howard

The final resting place of Joseph Innocent Howard at City Lane Cemetery, Sheffield. ©A Grave Announcement

This is the tomb of the majestically named Joseph Innocent Howard, a civic-minded butcher and popular local man who became something of a celebrity in the steel-towered conurbation of Sheffield. Slumbering amidst the throng of sepulchres marshalled on the hillside of the municipal cemetery on City Road, this raised ledger monument, in blushing pink granite, lies resolute and unyielding, towering over the urban greenery of the metropolitan skyline. An immaculately chosen site for a nineteenth-century businessman whose life revolved around the city, this particular burial ground was especially popular with the burgeoning ranks of the nineteenth-century lower middle-classes in Victorian society, solid and respectable folk who had climbed the ladders of prosperity, aspirational workers who sought to overcome their humble origins, even in death. Here, then, Joseph would spend his eternal rest rubbing shoulders with his fellow citizens of merit in perpetuity, interred in a locale where his status was continuously reinforced by virtue of his sepulchral companions. The cemetery reflected the genteel lives of the well-heeled in microcosm. To be seen to be deceased in such a place was to loudly proclaim one’s own affluence, to announce one’s estimable reputation to posterity. It was thus a fitting end for this proud and driven man.

Joseph Innocent Howard was born on the 1st of December, 1843, in the small market town of Bawtry in Doncaster. His unusual middle name, a moniker befitting the birth of a new baby, had been his mother Mary’s surname prior to marriage. His father Charles Howard was a successful self-employed joiner, employing, in 1851, two men and two apprentices. The family lived at 43 Scot Lane, both residing and working at this address situated on what served as the local high street. Joseph had three older brothers, all of whom would become carpenters, following in the footsteps of their father. In addition, there were four younger siblings of school-age. A fourteen-year-old servant, Hannah Hatfield, hailing from a village in Nottinghamshire, completed the household.

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1851 census entry recording the members of the Howard household © Findmypast

Amidst the family’s wood-working proclivities, it was to be expected that Joseph would hone his skills in the trade, seeking out a traineeship before eventually aiding his father in gainful employment. Conversely, when he had reached early adolescence, Joseph embarked upon a butchery apprenticeship. As before, he continued to live at Scot Lane, where he can be found as a seventeen-year-old in 1861, employed in a shop in the local area. Joseph’s ambitions, however, were rather grander than a commercial position in a relatively modest location. Sheffield, a city only around twenty-two miles away from Bawtry, loomed on the horizon, its merits no doubt further expounded upon by his father’s employee John Allwood, a man who had been born there and was a member of  the household. Like many before him, then, Joseph left home to seek his fortune.

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1850 OS Map of Yorkshire depicting Bawtry, with Scot Lane in the right-hand corner © National Library of Scotland

His grand ambitions of a successful life in Sheffield butchery began with an apprenticeship to a Mr Holmes in the West Bar area of the city. Sadly, this mentor of Joseph’s subsequently died, leaving him to search for another appointment. Shortly afterwards, he found his feet again with a Mr William Cooper. The two entered into a partnership and opened premises situated at 74 South Street, a central quarter of the city known for its lively retail trade, later renamed the Moor. At this location, meat was sold both to private consumers and wholesale enterprises, catering for every client.

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The Moor area of Sheffield © Picture Sheffield

Business was booming. Yet, self-employment was not without its hardships. In 1869, Joseph and William were involved in litigation over a disputed account, claiming £25 (c. £1565) for unpaid goods from fellow butcher Thomas Hollis. An employee of the latter, James Sneesby, had purchased goods for which payment had not been forthcoming. The case hinged upon the avowals of the two parties: the plaintiffs claimed that Sneesby had acted with his employer’s full knowledge, the defendant that the man had placed the order without explicit permission. The court found in favour of Thomas Hollis. The proceedings had been a lively affair during which ‘great excitement was manifested by the butchers,’ as each protested most ardently as to the course of events. The animation was such that the judge was driven to quip that as ‘the attorneys, barristers, and witnesses seemed to be excited,’ it was his fervent hope that ‘it would not extend to himself.’

Cooper and Howard 1869 litigation

A report on Joseph’s disputed account in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (13/02/1869) ©British Newspaper Archive

During the mid- to late-nineteenth century, when widespread mechanisation and rapid industrialisation threatened to upturn the economic and social foundation of British trade and manufacturing, responding to an accelerating demand for products, many sectors, especially those dependent upon smaller businesses, attempted to resist such changes. In the realm of butchery, such forces, coupled with pressure from social reformers, saw growing calls for the establishment of slaughterhouses as independent entities beyond city limits, a move which resulted in the construction of a number of sizeable meat markets away from the urban sprawl which prepared and sold carcasses. Such adaptions, however, promised to have a direct impact on self-employed meat-sellers who butchered animals on site. In Sheffield, rumblings amongst the city’s butchers grew more pronounced as those involved in the industry sought to maintain their right to address all aspects of the killing and preparation of animals in their own facilities. In order to combat such proposed modifications, business owners plying the trade banded together in 1870 to form the Sheffield Butchers’ Association. Joseph was one of the founding members and served for many years on the general committee, almost always attending the annual meetings. As the organisation took shape, a social calendar developed for subscribers to mingle with fellow tradesmen, including opportunities for socialising with locally and regionally important figures such as the city’s mayor and its parliamentary representatives in order to lobby for influence. Indeed, in 1893 the inaugural ‘Annual Ball’ took place in the Cutlers’ Hall, its proceeds going to the body’s benevolent fund and certain medical charities. This evening of dancing was supplemented by an ‘Annual Dinner,’ held at the same venue, an event which seated around 250 people. Delegates from the butchering associations of other cities were also in regular attendance. It was a swanky affair. Clearly, then, the meat-sellers of the city organised their business and social lives around this professional body and Joseph was no exception. From the very start, even whilst only  a tradesman of small means, he sought to extend and advance his offering with the support of a circle of contemporaries.

Sheffield Butchers' Association

By 1871, Joseph and William still retained the shop on South Street. Indeed, the former is to be found listed there on the census of that year. Interestingly, his thoughts had turned to family – his younger brother Charles, aged 23, had been brought over from Bawtry to serve as Joseph’s assistant. They were joined by their sister Anne and a twenty-year old apprentice William Sim Cobb. In this environment of bustling activity, the Howards plied their butchering trade beneath a new banner – the Howard Brothers.

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1871 census entry depicting the incipient butchery business, Howard Brothers © Findmypast

The incident with the unpaid goods was not to be the duo’s only brush with the authorities. In June 1876, the Sheffield newspapers were excitedly preoccupied with a ‘horse-taming spectacle,’ an episode of terrible equine abuse after which a man named George Laycock had been convicted for having ‘unlawfully an cruelly illtreated [sic] a mare by galvanising the same.’ Laycock, served with a fine of fifty shillings and costs, duly appealed against the judgement. Events had taken place as follows. In March of that year, the accused had issued the inhabitants of Sheffield with invitations to bring their horses to the Queen’s Ground so that he might cure any ‘vices’ with which the animals might be afflicted. Admission was subject to charge. Joseph and William, clearly intrigued by the proposition and fond of this particular horse, sent an assistant, Henry Lewin, to bring her to the field where she underwent Laycock’s treatment, a form of electrification. Led by a boy in the employ of the butchers, the mare was tied to a post before her hind legs were affixed to wires protruding from a ‘magnetic machine.’ Current was then applied, generated from a ‘galvanic battery.’ The creature, unsettled, dislodged the attachments in her jostling, moving one such cable to the bit in her mouth. Despite this disarray, the procedure was not halted. Electricity was applied again. The horse, immediately beginning to show signs of visible distress, ‘reared, fell back on its haunches, and then rolled over on the ground, where it lay, panting, sweating, and in evident agony.’ Even at this point, the current was not removed. When it finally ceased, the animal, bleeding from the mouth, had to be ‘roused with a stick.’

The supposed cure was an abject and cruel failure. Indeed, the uncontrolled kicking for which the horse was brought to Laycock resumed as soon as she was led away from the area. As the legal representatives of the appeal’s respondent stated, the horse had ‘no doubt been cruelly treated and subjected to unnecessary pain.’ An eyewitness, Mr J. Pendleton concurred, telling the court that ‘it appeared to be in great agony. It panted and heaved, and the ‘”sweat”‘ was conspicuous on it.’ He added further that ‘the mare suffered greatly whilst under the treatment, and he did not consider it a humane method of dealing with the case.’

Laycock advert 1877 Derbyshire Times

George Laycock’s advertisement for ‘horse taming by electricity,’ printed in the Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald (20/01/1877). ©British Newspaper Archive

When Joseph’s employee, Henry, was called upon to speak, he informed those present that his manager’s sibling, Anne Howard, had directed him to take the mare to Laycock for this supposedly restorative purpose following a recommendation. Despite having essentially agreed with the preceding assessments, Henry did go on to claim that the horse, formerly a ‘notorious kicker’ was now ‘a good deal quieter.’ This verdict was supported by a letter from Joseph and William stating that ‘since being operated on’ the mare had been much more placid. The reader is left with the feeling that the butchers were desperate to remove this potential stain from their reputation, resorting to the only possible solution to limit the damage to their business, namely continued affirmations of the animal’s subsequently improved conduct and attestations to its lack of suffering. Yet in reading the statements of the other witnesses and the comments of counsel, one cannot but starkly recognise the act of abuse perpetrated in this instance and the transparency of the hastily arranged ex post facto defence. Bewitched by the latest treatment arriving in town, Joseph’s sister had proposed and promoted the horse’s visit to Laycock, one clearly experimental in nature. Whilst we must be careful not to make anachronistic determinations as to the case, it seems patent that the butchers were aware of the nature of the therapy and mindful of its potential for harm. The bench, however, were not convinced. Citing supportive testimony from veterinarians approving of the practice and other witness statements attesting that the current was applied only for a very few seconds, they reached the verdict on appeal that there had been ‘no cruelty.’ The conviction which had first been brought by the Sheffield Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was quashed. Nevertheless, the association of the Cooper and Howard business with this insalubrious episode was fixed and, in the minds of many of the citizens interested in the case, was likely rather tarnished.

Laycock Appeal

Laycock’s verdict overturned (Sheffield Daily Telegraph 30/06/1876)  ©British Newspaper Archive

Howard Horse Laycock 1876

The newspaper listed the many cruelties inflicted upon Joseph’s mare (Sheffield Daily Telegraph 30/06/1876)  ©British Newspaper Archive

Despite the potential damage to character involved in such legal troubles, Joseph continued to expand, taking full advantage of the help provided by his brother, as  demonstrated on the 1881 census. By this time he had parted ways with his former associate William, striking out independently. Whilst he remained at South Street supported by three assistants in their twenties, Charles was entrusted with the management of a second branch of their meat-selling business, located at 90 West Bar. Now married to his wife Elizabeth and with new-born baby Florence, Charles was ably assisted by two associates. In total, therefore, the Howard Brothers now provided employment for five individuals across two sites. The pair were making a name for themselves, refining and honing their offering in a city brimming with competition. At this stage, therefore, the brothers sought to develop the family aspect of the business still further. Their nephew, Harry Howard, aged 13, had moved to Sheffield from Norfolk for the purpose of gaining butchery experience. Upon completing his apprenticeship with his brother, he later became an assistant at the South Street site.

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The 1881 household of Joseph Innocent Howard. © Findmypast

Joseph’s interests did not only lie in the meat-selling industry. He had remained in touch with his old partner William Cooper and the two made use of their former enterprise to involve themselves in the local community. Whilst trading together, the men had made a number of joint investments in Sheffield land. As a result, a field was loaned out for the Whitsuntide celebrations in 1881 to a group of children from the Sunday school attached to the now demolished St. Paul’s, a chapel of ease to Sheffield Parish Church – now the cathedral. The intention was that the space would be used for sports and games. So grateful were the assembly for this benevolence that they only adjourned ‘after cheering the gentlemen who had lent the field.’ The timing of this largesse also points to another facet of Joseph’s character: his religious bent. For many years, he served as a sidesman, a public-facing position involving duties similar to that of an usher, in the church noted above. His disciplined business life was complemented by ready adherence to the rigorous stipulations of the life of a practising Christian.

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Engraving of St.Paul’s taken from Edward Blore’s The History of the City of Sheffield 1843-1993 (licensed under CC BY 2.0).

The growth in demand for meat for the urban middle classes in the 19th century gave rise to expanded trade networks, facilitated by technological change. The urban butcher kept one eye trained on the livestock commerce of the hinterlands, making use of a nexus of contacts to ensure supply. Joseph Howard was one such figure, carefully and skilfully navigating cattle markets in the hope of a bargain. He was a shrewd negotiator, often relying on his business acumen to make himself a good deal. As a result, he was a trusted individual in the local community and the meat-selling industry. Indeed, following the death of cattle dealer J. W. Dickinson in 1881, Joseph was selected, in company with a number of other men, to be a member of a ‘committee of inspection’ entrusted with ensuring that the liquidation of the deceased’s estate took place without incident, reimbursing his creditors.

As we have seen above, this diligent and economic business practice, however, did not always proceed without incident. In 1882, an article in the newspaper records the conclusion of legal proceedings brought by Frederick Langley, a ‘licensed victualler,’ against butchers George Lister and Joseph Howard. The two were fined six pounds and four shillings as ‘compensation for damage caused to his [Langley’s] property by reason of two bulls being negligently driven on the 4th of January.’ The matter was as follows. Lister had sold the two creatures to his fellow meat-seller at Wakefield market. The animals were taken by train ‘en route for Sheffield,’ stopping at Bridgehouse to be collected by a drover and brought to the city. Disaster befell the man when the bulls, which were ‘very wild,’ greatly disturbed the plaintiff and his wife by ‘rushing into the bar, where they knocked all the things about, breaking decanters, glasses, &c., of the total value of £6. 4s.’ Having been eventually subdued, the animals were brought to Joseph’s shop on the Moor to be slaughtered. It proved to be an expensive transaction for the Howard Brothers.

Howard Bull Brawl

Joseph’s taurine skirmish as covered in the Sheffield Independent (24/06/1882). ©British Newspaper Archive

Such outlays notwithstanding, Joseph’s profits continued to grow, permitting more long-term investments. A couple of years after his brush with the law, the butcher made a successful bid upon 12 acres of Nottinghamshire grassland known as Far New Close, a deal made after he had ‘knocked down’ the auctioneer to the rate of £77 per acre. At the same time, he made a second purchase of another 17 acres of adjacent land – the unsurprisingly named New Close – for the sum of £56 per acre. It was not only the vending of meat per se that made the acquisition of these assets possible. Monies were also pouring in from another venture, a concern whereby every part of the slaughtered animal would be made to work for revenue. This was the Sheffield Butchers’ Hide & Skin Company and Joseph had been involved with the project since its incorporation in 1869.

Hide and Skin Company Manager Advert

Advertisement for a manager to oversee the new Sheffield Butchers’ Hide and Skin Company (Sheffield Independent 18/12/1869) ©British Newspaper Archive

The meat-sellers of the city, joining forces, had established this enterprise to complement their butchering efforts. It proved to be so successful that the Sheffield iron and steel industry were said to be have become nervous eyeing this threat to their commercial dominance. Indeed, in 1875, the Hide & Skin Company paid the handsome dividend of 25 per cent to its shareholders whilst simultaneously returning one per cent to its customer base and maintaining a sizeable balance. The business took on many contracts throughout the city, supplying a plethora of the by-products of butchery, including large amounts of fat, employing many in the area in its factories. Joseph was voted a director, a position to which he was frequently returned by investors and his fellow members of the board. In 1877, together with the latter, he was offered a ‘very cordial vote of thanks,’ receiving the sum of £50 as a reward for his stewardship. It was not only a lucrative appointment, but a sign of his social ascendance within the city, from mere tradesman to respectable businessman. By now, everyone who was everyone in the world of meat, in addition to a number of the great and the good of Sheffield itself, knew the Howard name. Only one area of his life still remained unfulfilled.

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Joseph and Elizabeth’s wedding certificate, dated to the 28th of December, 1886 (©British Newspaper Archive)

In 1886, a few days after Christmas, Joseph married Elizabeth Wainwright, a dressmaker twenty years younger than himself. Their wedding certificate (reproduced above) shows the two signatures of the couple, solemnifying their union in the eyes of God and their family, looking to the future. Elizabeth’s father William, named on the document as a yeoman, enjoyed modest success as a farmer, working 4 acres in Haxey, Doncaster, a town around eleven miles away from Joseph’s childhood home in Bawtry. It is therefore not inconceivable to surmise that the two met through a local connection of some description, perhaps facilitated by familial ties. Despite Joseph’s patent emphasis on kinship in his business life, there were to be no offspring from this union. As ever, his focus remained keenly trained upon his shops. It is for this reason, then, that, a few years later, the tainted meat scandal so occupied his thoughts and his commercial activities. He devoted himself wholeheartedly to averting a disaster whose roots lay in the turmoil of the past.

Eight years earlier, the passage of the Contagious Diseases (Animals) Bill by the Conservative government had caused great consternation amongst the butchers of Sheffield. This decree had been passed in response to the liberal environment of agricultural trade generated by the early to mid-nineteenth century’s emphasis on deregulation in such matters. Indeed, such was the light touch in these matters that little attention was given to the relationship between live imports and the spread of animal disease. The cattle plague of 1865 put paid to this hands-off approach, as the epidemic –  the infectious viral disease rinderpest – ripped its way through agricultural communities. The devastation brought about great legislative change. Such was the concern for the risk posed to public health in the consumption of contaminated meat that policies were subsequently introduced excluding living beasts from transportation and containing those diagnosed with the contagion through mandatory slaughter and quarantine procedures. Indeed, it was not only rinderpest that posed a threat to the health of the nation, but pleuropneumonia and foot and mouth caused great anxiety. In this climate of fear, the 1878 governmental act endowed inspectors with the power to take restrictive measures where necessary, often resulting in the killing of imported animals at the ports. Whilst the British farming industry saw this development as something of a victory for their own interests, the meat-selling community viewed the initiative as obstructive to their way of doing business, especially as regards the live slaughter of animals on the premises. Civil war broke out amongst the rearers and traders of meat. As such, when the butchers of Sheffield met to discuss the impending regulations enshrined within the new Bill introduced into the House of Lords by the Duke of Richmond, they ‘decided unanimously to oppose the measure.’

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A typical 1865 Cattle Plague notice from Hartlepool limiting the movement of animals. ©Hartlepool History Then and Now

A meeting of the Sheffield Butchers’ Association was held in the Smithfield Hotel, a red-brick building in the vicinity of the now closed Alexandra Theatre. Members were disgruntled, angrily complaining that they had not been able to present their comments on the new law to the Cattle Plague Committee established for such a purpose, whilst ‘agriculturalists and men in office under the Government gave nearly the whole of the testimony obtained.’ Inconsistencies were observed and derided: it was considered to be unfair that the authorities forced cattle to be slaughtered at the dockside, but permitted ‘lean and dairy stock’ to enter the country following a period of quarantine. The man in the chair, Councillor Woodcock, the President of the Association, used his position to urge the assembled butchers to take action, citing a recent regional gathering in Leeds whereby delegates resolved to appeal to the government for reconsideration. He asked his listeners to consider whether ‘a petition should be sent up from Sheffield or a deputation appointed to go up to London.’ Simultaneously, the public must be made aware of the ramifications of the restrictions, insofar as they would have to ‘bear the brunt of the increased prices.’ The passionate speeches of butchers in attendance at the meeting were recorded in the newspapers, comments railing against the political machinations responsible, asking why the principle of free trade, as far as cattle are concerned, had been summarily withdrawn, and condemning the government’s adherence to ‘landed interests’ over the good of the country. It was a lively affair, with tensions running high. Ultimately, it was agreed that both a public meeting would be held and the memorial adopted by their fellow butchers at the assembly in Leeds be ratified and dispatched to the House of Lords, a document which called the attention of the latter to three issues: the inconsistency in the treatment of dairy and fat cattle, the slaughtering of animals from countries unaffected by any of the contagious diseases, and the legislation’s likely destruction of British cattle trade with the Continent. Having reflected upon such matters, the Sheffield Butchers’ Association would ask the peers to remove a clause from the Bill in order that imported animals proved to be free from contagion on the dockside might be transported inland to be killed and sold. Joseph, heavily involved with these issues and eager to facilitate the lifting of the restrictions, was present at this high-spirited gathering. Indeed, he was even selected to be part of a new committee designed to take an overview of the implementation and effect of the legislation in Sheffield proper.

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At the same time, the Sheffield Butchers’ Association made the decision to lobby the local member of parliament, Anthony John Mundella, a Liberal. Whilst Joseph did not participate in these discussions, he would have been very interested in the outcome. The result was that the politician agreed to approach the relevant committee on behalf of the businessmen, prevailing upon the legislators to amend the Bill in line with the revisions suggested above. Mundella tirelessly worked to represent their interests, forming a body of opposition against the government. Such were his efforts that he was successful in making sure that the decree was redrafted, particularly in regard to the defeat of the proposals surrounding the compulsory slaughter of imported animals. In August 1878, a vote of thanks to the MP was even passed, demonstrating the gratitude of those involved in the meat-selling industry of Sheffield for his ‘firm, assiduous, and successful action.’ Mundella stated his especial pleasure in receiving this tribute from a professional body whose members were accustomed to differ politically from his own. He went on to detail the importance of the butchery business to Sheffield, expressing his own appreciation of the trade with words which must have resonated with Joseph:

‘You are a class, a very important class of the community, and have a great function to perform. You distribute to the community one of the first necessaries of life, and any interference with a trade like yours would have had, in my opinion, a most disastrous tendency.’

The crisis was averted. Imported animals were to be allowed to enter the country. The butchers of Sheffield could continue their business without interruption. The atmosphere was celebratory, the looming threat of disease seemingly removed from consciousness. Indeed, throughout the 1880s, Joseph and Charles poured forth all their energies into the business, taking advantage of the redrafted regulations in making regular purchases at the regional cattle markets, buying in particular a great deal of fat stock. Whilst the menace of contagion had receded, growing pressure on the issue of the abolition of private slaughter-houses worried many in Sheffield, especially towards the end of the decade. For now, such abattoirs would be permitted to exist if appropriate measures of sanitation were taken. Simultaneously, the city would be asked to consider the erection of several improved slaughter-houses throughout as opposed to one centralised site. This would facilitate ready usage of the facilities by smaller businesses. The relationship between established local trade and the improvements necessitated by the forces of industrialisation continued to be tested, with neither side willing to yield. Into this climate, the blight of tuberculosis brought, again, the issue of diseased meat to the forefront. Joseph found himself on the frontline. 

NPG D43513; Anthony John Mundella ('Statesmen, No. 99.') by James Jacques Tissot

An illustration of Anthony John Mundella MP in the Vanity Fair issue of the 9th December, 1871 (licensed under CC BY 2.0).

In September 1889, two carcasses were seized by the Medical Officer of Health and subsequently condemned by the magistrates as ‘diseased and unfit for the food of man,’  suffering from tuberculosis. The butchers were unhappy at this turn of events, arguing that, although there was evidence of the contagion, one of the carcasses remained edible given that  the flesh beyond the diseased section was untainted. Two veterinarians also certified that the meat was ‘fit for consumption.’ A strength of force was clearly required. The Sheffield Butchers’ Association arranged a meeting at the Albert Hall, attended by around four hundred of their body. Joseph was present as a member of the ruling committee. Great anger was expressed towards the medical official as desirous of condemning any meat which showed the slightest sign of the disease. Tensions were already running high following recent events in Glasgow where a man was prosecuted for selling diseased meat. This had become something of a test case for the issues at hand, with butchers making the case that they were unable to ascertain contagion upon purchase, that meat affected with the primary form of the disease remains edible, and, lastly, that to condemn flesh on the basis of a medical officer’s word alone is unjust.  ‘The butchers of Sheffield are in revolt,’ cried the London Daily News. Amidst the solutions sought, the suggestion of one individual, Edward Lister, was greeted with approbation, that a jury of three butchers and one veterinarian be appointed to consult on the matter of affected carcasses with the officer, and that appropriate compensation be offered to the butcher to mitigate the loss caused by enforced slaughter. The tradesmen wanted to ‘have a voice’ on the matter and it was decided that a deputation, a so-called ‘butchers’ jury,’ would be dispatched to the city’s Health Committee to plead their case for a ‘more rigorous and thorough inspection of foreign meat.’ Joseph and his brother Charles were both honoured in being chosen as two of those few who would join this party. The meeting drew to a close, ‘the largest gathering that ever took place’ of Sheffield butchers.

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Butchers organise a meeting of unprecedented size to address the growing crisis of diseased meat (Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser 25/09/1889). ©British Newspaper Archive

Despite the provision of the results of scientific testing and documents attesting to the success of butchers’ juries in other areas, the Health Committee declined the request, citing the authority granted to the medical officer by the Public Health Act of 1876. All was not yet lost, however. The men had also decided to call upon their old champion, Anthony Mundella, to assist them in obtaining an interview with the Minister for Agriculture, a Mr. Henry Chaplin. This having been arranged, Joseph was again one of those approached for this purpose, such was his reputation amongst his peers for his keen diligence and quiet assiduousness. The meeting was set for the 24th April, 1890. Prior to that, a gathering was to be held at the Great Bull Hotel in Wakefield on the 1st of April at 4,30pm of the representatives of butchers across the north of England, from Yorkshire, Lancashire and even Durham. ‘Do not fail to attend,’ the missive warned. The delegates strategised and sought tactics for best promoting their interests. At this stage and for some unknown reason, Joseph withdrew from proceedings. Perhaps the limited space generated by the sizeable regional interest in the planned discussions proved a barrier, or perhaps he simply wanted to focus on trade. Nevertheless, the fate of the business hinged upon the desired outcome and it must have been a very tense spring for the Howard brothers. 

Unexpectedly, the issue suddenly disappears from the newspapers, the trail running cold. Consultation of the speeches recorded in the parliamentary record Hansard makes it clear that little of concrete import emerged from the meeting. In comments given by Henry Chaplin on the subject of tuberculosis, he informs Parliament that he ‘received a large and important deputation’ where he ‘stated the views of the Board of Agriculture very fully.’ One concession was made in that he assured those who had attended this gathering that the government would not object to the offering of appropriate compensation to butchers whose animals were condemned and slaughtered. An inquiry was launched, an exploration of the issues which was overshadowed by yet another emergent crisis.

In the 1890s, the Howard brothers were extremely active in business, recorded at numerous cattle markets where they made a number of savvy purchases. It was this mode of acquisition which led to the opening of a dispute between the market in Retford and the butchers of Sheffield, difficulties amongst which both Joseph and Charles found themselves. The problem centred upon ‘luck money,’ a sum acting as informal insurance between buyer and seller as an assurance that the goods are genuine and in decent condition. The meat-sellers of the city, supported by those from Doncaster and other surrounding areas, refused to purchase animals from these sales unless such monies continued to be offered. This demand caused great indignation amongst those involved in agriculture in the region who considered the charge as a form of blackmail facilitating the enormous profits of the butchers, as opposed to their own paltry earnings. They refused to comply. Agriculturalists at Doncaster, Lincoln and Rotherham added their own vetos to the mix. Relations between the two parties broke down to such an extent that they were forced to enter mitigation, presided over by the Duke of Portland with Charles selected as official spokesperson. Unfortunately, whilst other areas fell in line, the deadlock at Retford could not be broken, despite Charles’ best attempts at presenting a convincing argument. The Sheffield Butchers’ Association therefore decided to finance the opening of a new market at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, and a company was formed to oversee its establishment. Charles and Joseph played a key role in this new venture, representing their Sheffield brethren at the venue’s opening. Their nephew Harry also came to join them, resident with Joseph at South Street where he was now serving as a fully trained butcher’s assistant.

Cattle Market Tring 1890

A cattle market held at Tring in Hertfordshire c.1890 ©National Education Network

A few years later, the markets of Rotherham and Worksop added their veto to the mix. Charles, now Secretary of the Sheffield Butchers’ Association, was again put forward as their representative, chosen to meet with a similar representative of the other side. In a meeting held in the Lion Hotel in Worksop, Charles argued the case of his fellow butchers, holding fast to their interests. According to the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, he claimed that ‘the granting of the bequest would result in increased competition and the material improvement of the market.’ Ultimately, his words swayed those who had initially been opposed to the ‘luck money’ charge. Worksop voted overwhelmingly to pay. Charles was triumphant. It was another victory for the Howard name.

As the century drew to a close, Joseph’s shop on South Street was booming – his nephew Harry had been joined by another, Joseph Cartwright Howard, and two further assistants, one of whom was his wife’s brother, Walter Edward Wainwright. Charles’ branch was also performing well and his family had grown considerably. Joining his wife Elizabeth and eldest daughter Florence were four further children, a teenage apprentice, two servants and his widowed mother-in-law, Mary Brookfield. He must also have now begun to keep his own cattle, perhaps for usage within the shop, as we find Charles listed as a farmer in addition to his customary trade. The future looked brighter than ever. It was not to last. The shadowy figure of the grim reaper came to pay a visit to the Howards. The blow was sudden, a tragic strike of fickle fate, an unforeseen agony.

Howard Brothers Butchers 1897

South Street decorated for Queen Victoria’s visit in 1897 with Joseph’s shop on the right. If you look closely, you can just discern the ‘Howard’ name as printed upon the store. ©Picture Sheffield

By the year 1901, the Howard brand had undergone further expansion following the opening of a third branch with nephew Harry at the helm as butcher, now operating independently. The shop was situated at 88 Sandford Grove Road in the leafy ward of Ecclesall Bierlow. The other locations continued to trade successfully. It was therefore all the more distressing when Joseph dropped dead of a massive and fatal heart attack at his residence and shop on South Street on the morning of the 12th of January, aged only 57. Although he had been suffering from some recent cardiac issues,  he had been seen on the previous day in the city ‘in his usual health’ and his passing was a ‘great surprise to his family and friends.’ The Sheffield newspapers bewailed his loss, lamenting that ‘a well-known and much respected figure has been removed from local circles.’ An obituary delineated his rise from apprentice to businessman, noting ‘his keen interest in everything appertaining to the welfare of the city.’ Through his activities with the Sheffield Butchers’ Association as a ‘prominent member’ who ‘worked hard in the interests of this organisation’ and his array of shops, Joseph was ‘well-known to almost all old Sheffielders and to many of the younger generation.’ Indeed, as the newspaper asserted, ‘his death will be deeply regretted.’ His absence would be sorely felt. The funeral was arranged a few days later, to be held on Wednesday the 16th in the afternoon at Sheffield Intake Cemetery, now known as City Road.

Funeral Hearse Sheffield 1901

A typical turn of the century Sheffield funeral hearse ©Picture Sheffield

The funeral was very well-attended, a tribute to Joseph’s impact upon his adopted city. Indeed, many prominent Sheffield organisations sent representatives. An enormous number of his fellow butchers also paid their respects. In a mark of his benevolence and his acts of civic goodwill, the proceedings also featured ‘many poor people who had benefitted from Mr. Howard’s kindness in the past.’ Joseph had always been ready to help with funds or facilities. He was a man upon whom one could always rely for assistance, for help in extricating oneself from a scrape. Such was the nature of the eulogies given in his favour, during a service presided over by the Revered J. Gilmore at St. Paul’s Church, where for many years Joseph worshipped and held a lay position. Afterwards, his coffin bedecked with wreaths was laid upon the hearse and the funeral cortege travelled to the cemetery proper. The Revered Gilmore read the service as Joseph’s body was interred and he became one, appropriately, with the earth of Sheffield.  Amongst the mourners were his widow Elizabeth, two of his brothers including Charles, three nephews of whom Harry was one, a sister- and brother-in-law. The event was covered in the newspaper.

Joseph Innocent Howard Funeral 1901

The funeral of Joseph Innocent Howard as detailed in the Sheffield Independent (17/01/1901) ©British Newspaper Archive

Joseph’s capital upon his death was very considerable, a sum amounting to £30,211. This was the equivalent of around 2.3 million in today’s money and included the likely proceeds of the sale of the deceased’s property and land, assets including two farms near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire and a sizeable amount of Sheffield land which was to be liquidated at auction. As this process took longer than expected, it was not until October 1902 that a notice appeared in the city’s newspapers requesting that those with claims against his estate make contact with the solicitors acting for his executors, one of whom was his nephew Harry Howard. Clearly, there had been some overvaluation in Joseph’s affairs, likely due to difficulties in selling the above assets, as, in April 1903, his will was resworn in the amount of £25488, still an enormous sum equating to around 2 million pounds. Joseph had risen from apprentice to wealthy businessmen, securing a commercial presence throughout the city. He lived and died in prosperity.

Howard Brothers West Bar

The West Bar branch of the Howards’ butchery shops (third from the left). ©Picture Sheffield

The passing of the founding member of the Howard group of butchers did not lead to the cessation of their activities, although the men never again saw the kind of wealth associated with Joseph. Harry was installed at 74 South Street, where he took over from his uncle in keeping the shop trading at a roaring pace, aided by two assistants. His wife and sister-in-law, in addition to two servants, made up the household. Charles also continued to operate his part of the business from West Bar until his death in retirement in 1923, leaving around £3833 (c. £111,000). One of the men’s two other nephews, having gained an enormous amount of experience, left the area in pursuit of an independent position. Walter Edward Wainwright, whose uncle through marriage was Joseph, set up shop in nearby Barnsley with his wife and daughter. There was a sad end for the remaining nephew, however. Joseph Howard Cartwright died a year after his uncle in 1902. This tragic news notwithstanding, it is overwhelmingly clear that provisions had already been made for Joseph’s vision, constructed upon a foundation of kinship, to continue to prosper. Indeed, that the familial aspect of the Howard brand had become multi-generational can be seen in a gesture of Charles, having named his two eldest sons Charles and Joseph. History could repeat itself. Both boys trained as butchers and embarked upon a career trading in the industry in Sheffield. Like father, like son. It was a poignant affirmation of the ties of blood upon which their fortune and reputation had been founded.

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The probate notice of Charles Howard in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (31/12/1923) ©British Newspaper Archive

As a stalwart purveyor of meats in the city for decades, the Howard name had become a byword for business acumen and excellence. In addition to the reputation garnered from such a practice, the role had also brought the family considerable wealth. They had come a long way from the days of that small market town of Bawtry. Important and celebrated within the city, they formed a part of the fabric of life, solid and respectable representatives of the emergent middle classes, prosperous businessmen with influence to wield. As these individuals rose within society, it became increasingly clear that your background was not necessarily your destiny. The ladder to riches could be mounted by all, provided one had the wherewithal to scale the heights.

As the 19th century drew to a close and the death of Victoria brought great uncertainty to her citizens, it was patent that the rise of such skilled entrepreneurs, bolstered by the changing shape of commerce, was here to stay. The middle classes had grown fat upon the upward mobility of these new members. There were, however, more radical societal developments to come. As the Edwardian period ushered in the deceleration of the forces of industrialisation, focus turned to social reform and the nature of political representation. Change was in the wind.

💀 Thanks for Reading!

A Grave Announcement (@AGraveAnnounce)

Bibliography

The following items proved enormously helpful in providing general background information on the butchery trade and relevant legislation:

A. B. Erickson, ‘The Cattle Plague in England 1865-7,’ Agricultural History 35.2 (1961), 94-103. 

J. R. Fisher, ‘The Economic Effects of Cattle Disease in Britain and Its Containment, 1850-1900,’ Agricultural History 54.2 (1980), 278-294.

K. Waddington, The Bovine ScourgeMeatTuberculosis and Public Health18501914 (Rochester, 2006)

Websites

The British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). Accessed August 21st, 2019.

Findmypast (https://www.findmypast.co.uk). Accessed August 19th, 2019. 

Graces Guide (https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Main_Page). Accessed August 25th, 2019. 

Hartlepool History Then and Now (https://www.hhtandn.org). Accessed August 27th, 2019. 

Hansard (https://hansard.parliament.uk). Accessed September 2nd, 2019. 

Picture Sheffield (http://www.picturesheffield.com). Accessed September 10th, 2019.

Coming up Roses: John Alfred Groom, the London Flower-Girls and a Highgate Goodbye (Long Read)

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The Grave of John Alfred Groom in Highgate Cemetery (Image © A Grave Announcement).

Whilst wandering the main footpath in Highgate East, I almost passed this monument without comment, preoccupied with the vista of the armies of grave markers saluting the woods. It was an unassuming example of the popular scroll headstone, somewhat discoloured, its text fading like an ageing memory. A pockmarked wreath rested atop its surface, contemplating the disappearing tendrils of ivy interspersed with the text. I moved closer and noted the epitaphic biography lining the stone:

IN 
IN EVER ABIDING MEMORY
-OF-
JOHN ALFRED GROOM
DIED 27TH DECEMBER 1919
FOUNDER OF
THE CRIPPLEAGE,
CLERKENWELL, LONDON
AND THE ORPHANAGE
CLACTON-ON-SEA
A SERVANT OF GOD
AND A FRIEND OF THE POOR,
THE ORPHANED AND THE AFFLICTED.

The words moved me to action. I was determined to look into his life. The terminology both appalled and intrigued – what was this so-called Crippleage?’ What kind of work was done there? The phrase seemed to conjure up a series of Dickensian horrors in the form of a crude workfare narrative, the grimness of a quid pro quo penury. At the same time, the notation of ‘the poor, the orphaned and the afflicted’ felt like a clarion call to altruistic acts. I felt as if I had to explore, as others have done, the figure of John Alfred Groom, metaphorically cleansing the dirt and grime from his stone, restoring his memory to an unblemished condition, unearthing, uncovering and, ultimately, revivifying. In doing so, I could perhaps in turn learn a little more about the vulnerable individuals he made it his mission to assist.

John Alfred Groom was born at 6 North Street, Clerkenwell, London on the 15th of August, 1845. He was the third son of Sarah Maria Groom and her husband George, a copperplate printer. Sarah Wigton had married the latter on the 21st of September, 1840 in St. Pancras, an area of London adjacent to where the family would settle. At first, Sarah and George lodged at Brunswick Place in a house with seven other individuals: two families, the Welfords and the Fieldings, in addition to fifteen-year-old labourer John Trott. Conditions must have been rather overcrowded, and it is no surprise to discover the Grooms residing elsewhere by 1851, now occupying 6 Field Terrace following their move from John’s birthplace.

After leaving school, John started work aged fifteen as an errand boy (termed ‘lad’ on the census) for the Inland Revenue. The appointment was not to last for long. He soon undertook an apprenticeship in engine-turning, during which training he became highly skilled in the art of silver-engraving. Indeed, at the age of 21, he set up his own business in the latter, running proceedings from a glass-fronted shed in the garden of the family home.

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An example of a ‘situations vacant’ advert for engine turners, printed in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on the 21st of December, 1865. © British Newspaper Archive

Amidst all this activity, tragedy struck. In 1866, George passed away at the age of 46, leaving Sarah to raise six children alone. She must have been an indefatigable woman. The family took solace from the loss in their beloved church, where John had been a Sunday school teacher since the age of 16. John himself, as the eldest child remaining at home, was also forced to adopt more of a parental role, assisting his mother in tending to his siblings. The experience likely served him in good stead for his later pastoral efforts helping the vulnerable, informing his need to minister to those whom society had all but forgotten. Indeed, he was already developing a social conscience. In company with a friend who had been appointed a City of London Commissioner, John spent a considerable amount of time in the so-called slums, witnessing at first hand the abject poverty and despair written on the faces of the inhabitants. Their quiet and determined suffering struck an insistent chord within him. John felt a growing determination to help.

Bluegate Fields - Dore

‘Bluegate Fields,’ a slum area in the east end of London, illustrated by Gustave Doré in 1872.

Not long after his business had been established, John was asked to lead a mission hall in the neighbourhood as voluntary superintendent. Whilst his brothers kept his affairs in order, he was able to devote himself to philanthropic endeavour, expending increasing amounts of time and energy upon his new charges. At the same time, travelling much through Farringdon Market had brought him into contact with the situation of the blind and disabled girls who thronged the nearby streets, hawking flowers and watercress to passers-by. These individuals made a precarious living, seasonal and often beset by the vagaries of the weather, sleeping outdoors and, on market-days, ready for action by four o’clock in the morning. The London City Press on the 19th of August, 1871, emphatically details their lot, terming such vendors ‘a forlorn, broken-down set, with scarcely a ray of hope in this world, and next to none in the other.’ They have, in the newspaper’s words, ‘fallen down the ladder of life.’ Their plight was such that John was galvanised into action.

London Flower-Sellers

London Life. Flower-Sellers. © New York Public Library

In 1866, having hired a local meeting hall on Harp Alley near Covent Garden, John founded that which is inscribed upon his grave: ‘John Groom’s Crippleage,’ also known as the ‘Watercress and Flower Girls’ Christian Mission.’ Here, the flower-sellers were able to obtain a cup of fortifying hot cocoa in the mornings and, for a small contribution, a warm meal twice-weekly. The organisation became a centre, a hub for vulnerable individuals whose lives were characterised by insecurity, desperately trying to make ends meet. The girls were encouraged to attend to their ablutions, practising a good level of personal hygiene and self-care. Simultaneously, John, who termed himself a ‘voluntary evangelist,’ would read them Bible stories, hoping to inculcate within them a moral framework to guide their future activities, whilst also urging participants to attend one of three Sunday schools established in the area. Whilst this sounds to our ears like rather too many strings attached, it was considered progressive at the time, a small beacon of hope for those condemned to wander the streets in search of a living.

John’s efforts did not go unrecognised. The Earl of Shaftesbury publicly announced his support of the venture, becoming the organisation’s president, a development which was said to have ‘contributed greatly to its welfare’ by the Islington Gazette (11th July, 1873). He also brought in much-needed funds, taking advantage of his many contacts. Indeed, Shaftesbury had noticed John, a distinctive figure commonly found berobed in a top hat, whilst himself visiting the more impoverished sectors of the city as part of his political work seeking reforms for the working poor. The two became fast friends, often to be seen together, the aristocrat and the preacher, an unlikely duo.

Shortly after the project’s inception, wedding bells rang out. Sarah Farmington, the daughter of a coachman, married John on the 5th of March, 1868. Groom was now a groom! The couple went on to have four children, three sons and a daughter, as noted below in this copy of the 1881 census, moving into 8 Sekforde Street in Clerkenwell,  a  terraced house to which a blue plaque commemorating John’s legacy is now affixed. Sarah was an invaluable support to her husband, assisting with his enterprise and proving herself to be an industrious worker. Her contribution to the work of the mission should not be underestimated – she threw herself into proceedings with a relentless energy.

1881 census John Alfred Groom

1881 census depicting John Alfred and Sarah Groom with their children © Findmypast

Now a married man, John persevered with his project, devoting himself to supporting his clients. Professionally, however, he was dissatisfied. Despite operating a centre available for those needing assistance, he soon found that his wish to provide blind and disabled girls with the means to become self-sufficient remained unfulfilled. Whilst a number of attendees were able to secure a position in domestic service, the majority continued to eke out a meagre living on the streets. John wanted to ensure that his charges became more independent and, like all good stories, the solution to the conundrum lay with a woman now almost written out of this particular tale – the Victorian philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts.

Angela was extraordinarily wealthy. In 1837, she was suddenly catapulted into the limelight as one of the richest people in the country, having inherited her grandfather’s estate, a fortune worth in the region of £1.8 million, equivalent to a staggering £108,750,000 in 2019. Angela chose to use this money for charitable purposes, establishing scholarships, making endowments and financing philanthropic ventures. She was particularly interested in the plight of the poor and, as a result, had become aware of the hardship and adversity facing the disabled London flower-sellers. In 1879, she had founded a ‘Flower Girls’ Brigade’ designed for those between the ages of 13 and 15. This was supplemented with a factory in Clerkenwell, installed for the purpose of instruction in the art of artificial flower-making. Her primary focus was the security of the girls – she made sure that they received police protection and were protected from the dangers of exploitation. A charitable industry thus rose up, providing clients with the opportunity to teach themselves a skill, establishing a ready-made community into which those formerly condemned to the streets, both with and without disabilities, could enter and, it was to be hoped, flourish. 

At this point, John enters the picture. Angela, having become acquainted with the work of his ‘Watercress and Flower Girls’ Christian Mission’ and recognising his desire to furnish the clients of his organisation with a more sustainable means of support, prevailed upon John to devote himself to the enterprise of artificial flower manufacture. He agreed to her request, provided that the following condition be met: that Angela finance the hiring of a manager to oversee John’s engraving business. This arrangement  once made persisted until Angela’s marriage in 1881, an affair which scandalised Victorian society as the 67-year-old heiress wed 29-year-old American William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett. Having thus married an alien, she was forced to forfeit her inheritance, retaining precious little capital for her causes. This new paucity of funds compelled the so-called ‘Queen of the Poor ‘ to step back from her life’s work, focusing instead on her husband’s political career at Westminster.

Angela does not receive due credit for her involvement in the formation of John’s enterprise  – in many pieces researching the history of the flower-making girls, she is simply omitted, an irrelevance in an otherwise grand tale of patriarchal redemption. Whilst reflecting upon the story of John Alfred Groom, therefore, it is imperative that we remember Angela’s key role in the decision to diversify John’s association, and that, without her persuasive efforts, he may well not have embarked upon this industry. In writing this piece, then, I also hope to honour Angela’s memory and give credit where credit is very much due.

Following John’s assent, Angela withdrew from the quotidian administration of her Flower Girls’ Brigade. This, in turn, became the industrial sector of the business, the profits of which paid John a salary. The Mission Hall became a de facto factory with all rushing to offer assistance. Indeed, it was a true family affair – John’s brothers supplied the machines. A cousin, Jane Holiday, is even listed on the 1891 census as ‘Artificial Florist Forewoman,’ a memorable title.

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1891 census detailing the role of John’s cousin Jane: Artificial Florist Forewoman. © Findmypast

In order to offset the seasonal precarity of the occupation, a programme was devised whereby, during the summer months, bouquets of genuine flowers were made up and offered for sale on the premises, and, during the winter time, artificial blooms were crafted, spots of colour to counteract the drabness and dinginess of the London winter chill. The latter flowers themselves were made from the fabric ‘sateen.’ From this material, fed into the machines, petals were cut to size. Once these had been obtained, the girls would colour the pieces, attaching them to a wire stem bedecked in green paper. This was a task requiring extraordinary skill: a deftness characterised by precision, care and speed. Many of the girls became highly adept at producing even the most intricate of flowers in an impressive trompe l’oeil. In 1888, the fruits of their labour were displayed at the ‘Women’s Art Exhibition’ held at the Royal Concert Hall for the purposes of demonstrating ‘what women can do.’ The Hastings and St. Leonard’s Observer on the 1st of December details the magnificent results of the artificial flower-makers, asserting that their presentation was ‘one of the most effective exhibits in the whole room.’ The newspaper contended that ‘a nearer approach to reality could not be conceived; one feels almost inclined to seize a bouquet and expect to scent a pleasing aroma from them.’ This was the affirmation that the organisation needed – John and his team renewed their efforts, driven by a now reinforced sense of purpose.

In 1894, the expanding company moved to larger premises at Woodbridge Chapel, in the environs of Sekforde Street. The sheer scale of the enterprise meant that the volume was now such that the product could be sold wholesale to businesses and private residences. John remained an ardent campaigner on behalf of the association, generating an influx of donations which enabled the charity to further refine its provision. Indeed, such monies enabled the lease of a number of dwellings near the factory where clients could be housed, overseen by a series of newly-employed ‘house-mothers.’ Such monetary gifts were made to stretch even further – in 1890, John opened a ‘Flower Village Orphanage’ at Clacton-on-Sea.

This institution doubled as both a home for those children whose parents had died or subjected them to abandonment, and a holiday resort not only for the London flower-makers, but also, at certain times of the year, disabled children from the city. In a letter to the Kent & Sussex Courier on the 12th of May, 1899, John urges readers to donate to the retreat’s summer programme, designed as a period of respite for those ‘sightless and helpless little ones’ who found themselves part of the ‘vast army of slum children sent away every year to the various holiday-homes.’ The Groom retreat, he claims in his missive, is specially fitted out for such children, and brings a ‘ray of sunshine’ into their ‘dreary lives,’ the chance to leave behind the smog of the city for the untamed azure of the sea. Ten shilling contributions are sought, a sum sizeable enough to fund a fortnight’s stay for one of these unfortunate souls. The offering was a roaring success. Not long afterwards, five other such homes were opened, all of which were, appropriately, named in honour of a flower, housing around one hundred disabled girls between the ages of two and twelve. The children were raised to go on to things which many thought impossible for the ‘afflicted’ – an education, employment in service, and, of course, London flower-making. Even after they had departed, John urged his former charges to keep in touch, offering them ongoing ‘counsel and advice’ (Heywood Advertiser, 29th of March, 1912).

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John Alfred Groom’s letter to the editor seeking donations, published in the Kent & Sussex Times on the 12th of May, 1899. © British Newspaper Archive

Amidst such noble exertions, the flower-girls continued to make an impression, going from strength to strength at the site of the new factory. In addition to their commercial undertakings, they took part in many exhibitions, advertising the product to new audiences, demonstrating their dexterity and serving as a living example of Groom’s philanthropic designs. In 1905, for instance, an exhibition of artificial flowers crafted by those from ‘Mr J. A. Groom’s Industrial Training Homes for Crippled and Afflicted Girls’ took place in Oxford Town Hall. The blooms were the subject of lofty praise in the Oxford Times on the 27th of May of that year, being ‘an exceedingly close copy of Nature’ and remarkably versatile, suitable for ‘conservatories, dining-table and drawing-room decorations, as buttonholes, and for evening dresses.’ The girls were able to prove, to a contemporary society often morally selective in its treatment of the needy, that to have a disability was not to be without ability, and that remarkable hardship could be overcome. It was claimed that the enterprise offered a chance to those for whom life had a ‘blank outlook’ and was scarcely ‘worth living,’ teaching ‘poor helpless girls how to help themselves.’

At any one time, there were around 150 disabled workers engaged in John’s flower-making industry, drawn from across the United Kingdom, instructed in the art and given the tools to make a living, earning around fifteen shillings a week. Queen Victoria herself was said to have taken a ‘loving, keen interest in their work,’ and to have sent intermittent funds to the cause. Queen Alexandra and the Princess of Wales also maintained this royal focus, often requesting samples for review. Clearly, then, the disabled girls and their situation made a resounding impact throughout society, providing the wealthy and the elite with an easy outlet, albeit rather paternalistic, to contribute to the alleviation of the sufferings of poor unfortunates and to assuage their own guilt. It is important that we do not forget, however, that for every John Alfred Groom and for every flower-girl, there were those without such opportunity, those who withered like a dying bloom on the streets, those cast out from their families, objects to be pitied, feared, scorned, and, ultimately, spurned. Even amongst John’s operation, assistance came at a price – there were rules to be followed and regulations to be upheld. It was not a disinterested help that aided the disabled and the so-called ‘afflicted,’ but one informed by an entrenched model of the privilege ingrained within narratives of Christian salvation.

In 1906, business was booming, the reputation of John’s work ever-growing. Indeed, the flower-makers were honoured by being chosen to decorate the London Guildhall for the Lord Mayor’s banquet, the results of which received great praise. In that same year, however, a personal tragedy befell John – his wife, Sarah, passed away. She had been his great support, providing constant aid and advice. She had also brought up three sons and a daughter. Her loss must have been devastating. Yet John could not afford to waver. He threw himself into his work, taking solace in offering help to others. Two years later, he found happiness again, marrying Ada Wood, a hospital nurse, the daughter of a contractor. In 1911, the newly-weds were living at John’s accustomed 8 Sekforde Street, with all four of his children, a nephew, and two of his charges as boarders. The engine-turning company, established long ago by John prior to his philanthropic projects, continued to be run from the address, now by his sons, Alfred and Herbert. John was a memorable fellow, a character always to be found berobed in a top hat. Such headgear would only removed when in attendance at a football, swiftly exchanged for flat cap. He was an avid supporter of Chelsea Football Club and was frequently seen at home games. Nobody forgot John. He was a fixture in the neighbourhood, known to rich and poor alike.

1911 Groom Census

1911 census depicting the busy household of John and Ada Groom. © Findmypast

Queen Alexandra’s support, as noted above, continued to flourish. In 1912, she placed an order for thousands of hand-crafted roses which were to be sold on the inaugural ‘Queen Alexandra Rose Day,’ held on the 26th of June, the anniversary of her move to Britain. The event raised approximately £18,000 for charity (c. £1,061,000). Whilst in her native Denmark, the queen had witnessed the efforts of a priest selling such blooms to support those in need. She resolved to transport the idea overseas. Indeed, even today,  ‘Alexandra Rose Day’ is celebrated. This was far from the only royal order presented to the flower-makers. A previous request had seen the girls produce £30,000 flowers to be produced for a banquet in honour of the king and queen of Norway. The renown of ‘John Groom’s Crippleage and Flower Girls’ Mission,’ was clearly such that its manufacturers’ skills were recognised both nationally and internationally. John’s early designs had finally come into bloom – this was a self-sustainable enterprise, providing food and shelter for those with disabilities, sponsoring those whom society had disregarded.

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Alexandra Rose Day sellers assist the Preston Mayoress [sic] (Lancashire Evening Post, 15th of June, 1935). © British Newspaper Archive

It surprises many who look into the life and times of the flower-girls that their craft was responsible for the emergence of some of the first poppies as reverential symbols of lives lost in combat. In 1916, John’s association was approached by a group of women in Whitby who asked them to assemble a batch of poppies to be sold. An impromptu ‘Poppy Day’ was born, an occasion on which a donation would secure one a flower, the profits of which would, in turn, aid injured soldiers. The practice proved enormously popular and soon became an annual event adopted by the Royal British Legion. It is clear, therefore, that the industry for which the flower-girls laboured had a considerable impact on the socio-cultural fabric of the nation, involved in cementing several traditions in which we still partake today.

In 1918, however, tragedy struck as John passed away. His increasingly failing health had brought an end to his charitable work as superintendent and secretary of the mission in which he was a self-styled ‘baptist minister.’ Throughout the final year of his life, he occupied a room in the Clacton Orphanage, living amidst the realisation of his aspirations, witnessing the prospering of his charges. Shortly after Christmas, on the 27th of December, 1919, John passed away. He was interred on the east side of Highgate Cemetery. 

John Alfred Groom and Son

John Alfred Groom and his son Alfred. © National Portrait Gallery

Following his death, Alfred, John’s eldest son, took over management of the organisation, leaving the Groom’s engine-turning business to his younger brothers. The flower-selling industry continued to prosper under his leadership, expanding to such an extent that manufacture was transferred to a larger site at Edgeware. Here, a de facto village rose up, with houses constructed to accommodate the workers arranged in such a way so as to encircle the newly built factory. 300 disabled girls lived and worked in this place, processing an enormous volume of flowers every year. Indeed, in 1932, around 14 million of the so-called Alexandra Roses were produced on this site. 

Like all great empires, rise gave way to fall. The business of flower-making did not fare well in the first half of the twentieth century. The instability that had once driven John to offer help to those selling fresh blooms on the streets of London returned with a vengeance to afflict their artificial counterparts. As demand shrank, the organisation was forced to remodel itself, eventually even admitting boys in 1965. Whilst maintaining an interest in fostering independence amongst attendees, focus was now very much on the housing of the disabled alone. No longer were those admitted engaged in the labour of flower-making. Furthermore, with Victorian attitudes to disability disappearing in the rear-view mirror, more emphasis was placed upon accommodating those considered to be unlikely to obtain or keep gainful employment, a new state of affairs brought to bear by a growing reluctance to seek the moral edification and practical training of those deemed burdensome to society. In the aftermath of the two world wars and the improved awareness of the disabled generated by the return of so many wounded veterans, the grand old moral strictures of Christian programmes of salvation began to fall out of favour. Indeed, John’s former mission was renamed ‘John Groom’s Association for the Disabled,’ a new name for a new start.

In 1979, the organisation ceased its work with children. It was the end of an era, the culmination of over a century of furnished aid for those considered impoverished and needy. Activities regarding the housing of the disabled were expanded – ‘John Groom’s Housing Association’ became an official registered charity. Flats and complexes were constructed throughout the country. John Groom’s Court, for instance, occupies a site in Norwich and is still in operation for those with ‘physical and intellectual disabilities.’ A subsidiary, ‘Grooms Holidays,’ worked to arrange vacations for the disabled in the UK. Such independence was not to last for long. In 2007, two old friends met once again when the charities John Grooms and the Shaftesbury Society were merged, adopting a new Christian identity under the name of ‘Livability.’ The original aims of John’s association now live on as the inspiration for a range of community engagement projects and services for disabled people. The work continues.

Livability Logo

The logo of Livability, a charity created from the merger of John Groom’s mission and the Shaftesbury Society.

In telling this story, I have attempted to give life to John, Angela and the flower-making project. Finding the voices of the girls themselves, however, has proved to be much more difficult. It is therefore incumbent upon us that we do not allow the forces of an easy nostalgia to dictate remembrance of the services described here. Whilst John’s aims were undoubtedly admirable, a capitalistic model of services rendered propped up the foundations of this charitable entity. An emphatically patriarchal framework imposing aid through the paternal lens of the Christian mission, a status quo where physical redemption was dependent upon the surrender of your mortal soul to a clearly circumscribed moral schematic, was at the heart of the establishment.

Endemic societal attitudes to disability also meant that all was not rosy (pun intended). To our ears, the terminology adopted by John and his mission, reinforced by the echo chamber of his contemporaries, is starkly discriminatory. To read of the establishment of such an organisation as the ‘Crippleage’ is a confronting experience – violating and dehumanising. Former residents substantiate this entrenched prejudice, speaking of their status as constructed spectacles for the so-called able-bodied, their disabilities fetishised, performative mirrors used to confirm innate biases. Even the designation ‘flower-girl’ was one of tacit disparagement, conveying, as Huneault notes, a ‘belittling immaturity’ in accordance with the ‘infantilizing requirements of a patriarchal culture.’ We must always keep in mind that such philanthropic labour is visible to us through the distorted lens of those who were themselves responsible for the very charity itself.

We have come a long way from the days of ‘helping the helpless to help themselves.’ Yet we still have a long way to go. Now more than ever, disability rights must be protected. We must safeguard what has been hard-fought. We must keep fighting to construct a society where there is opportunity for all. Let’s keep on integrating, not segregating, until John’s mission is a thing only of the past.

💀 Thanks for Reading!

A Grave Announcement (@AGraveAnnounce)

Bibliography

The following general web resources proved very useful in the completion of this research:

The British Newspaper Archive

Findmypast 

The following websites provided valuable background information on John and his family, the Earl of Shaftesbury and Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts:

P. Higginbotham, ‘John Groom’s Crippleage and Flower Girls’ Mission, Clerkenwell, London (Children’s Homes). http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk/ClerkenwellGroom/ [accessed 10 June 2019].

K. Huneault, ‘Flower-Girls and Fictions: Selling on the Streets’, RACAR revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review 23, no.1/2 (1996), 52-70.

L. Oldershaw, ‘Clacton’s Historic Flower Girls and their Royal Connection’, in the Colchester Gazette. https://www.gazette-news.co.uk/news/15463243.clactons-historic-flower-girls-and-their-royal-connection/ [accessed 29 June 2019].

L. Oldershaw, ‘When Barnado’s was the Crippleage and Flower Girls’ Mission and floral fundraisers put Clacton on the map in the 1900’s’, in the Colchester Gazette. https://www.gazette-news.co.uk/news/15469022.when-barnados-was-the-crippleage-and-flower-girls-mission-and-floral-fundraisers-put-clacton-on-the-map-in-the-1900s/ [accessed 29 June 2019].

M. Pottle, Groom, John Alfred‘, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [accessed 10 June 2019].

J. Simkin, ‘Angela Burdett-Coutts,’ (Spartacus Educational). https://spartacus-educational.com/EDburdett.htm [accessed 2 July 2019].

‘Sekforde Street area’, in Survey of London: Volume 46, South and East Clerkenwell, ed. Philip Temple (London, 2008), pp. 72-85. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol46/pp72-85 [accessed 10 June 2019].

God’s Little Acre(s): Highgate Cemetery West – Part 1 (Long Read)

Far spread below doth London wear,
Its cloud by day, its fire by night–
Yet scarce with heavenly presence there
Shrined in the smoke or pallid light.
Incessant troops from that vast throng
Withdraw to silent colonies;
Where houses, lo, are fair and strong,
Though ruins, all that dwell in these.
Yet, ‘neath the universal sky,
Bright children here too run and sing,
Calm verdure waxes green and high,
And grave-side roses smell of Spring.

In Highgate Cemetery, William Allingham (1850)

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Highgate East (Image © A Grave Announcement)

Last night I dreamt I went to Highgate again: the creeping foliage of its lingering woods, the wealth of stones arrayed like a clamouring crowd, the quiet tittering of its avian population, its wildflowers dotted in a universe of stars. Seemingly labyrinthine paths meander through the arboreal canopy, a profusion of markers wind their way towards the horizon, throngs of personal stories gathered about the woods, quiet voices softly speaking both the death and victory of time. It is an affecting sort of place, the kind of site at which your heart beats with wonder at the very act of passing through. As the genealogical adage attests, we are always only passing through. In Highgate, this transience is written into our shared history, carved into the stones of those who have gone before, families occupying that very ground from the dawn of the Victorian era to the technological jungle of our own period. 

In early nineteenth century London, burying the dead was a dark and grotty business. As the population of the city swelled from around 1 million to 2.3. million souls, the growing urban sprawl, in addition to the associated trend for interment within the city limits, gave birth to overflowing graveyards riddled with disease and putrefaction. These unsanitary conditions were even said to contribute to the outbreak of illness in surrounding dwellings. Worse still, decaying matter was known to leak into the water supply. There were even reports of sewer rats desecrating bodies. All was disarray. Burial grounds were ransacked, cadavers taken away to be sold illegally for medical purposes. Corpses were routinely dismembered in order to increase space for further committals. Gravediggers commonly worked in conditions so cramped that recently interred bodies were violently disturbed. These were grisly and unregulated places. Horrifying scenes of putrefaction. Those who had passed on were clearly unable to rest in peace. Something had to be done to ameliorate the atrocity of the prevailing sepulchral practices.

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Cemetery at Bunhill Fields, Finsbury, London, 1866 © Natural History Museum

In 1832, bowing to pressure from those seeking reform, an Act of Parliament was passed urging more burials outside London, seeking to promote the establishment of private cemeteries free from parish control. The construction of Père Lachaise in 1815 with its emphasis on a landscaped ‘garden’ layout, a space defined by artfully arranged plants and imposing architectural features, had a huge influence on the changing conceptualisation of the cemetery in this period, becoming something of a model for those following suit in the British capital. In the ensuing nine years after the above decree stipulated the incorporation of a General Cemetery Company ‘for the interment of the dead in the neighbourhood of the Metropolis,’ seven such sites were selected and developed, beginning with Kensal Green in north-west London. Dying was now reborn, interment made corporate property, as this General Cemetery Company inspired a number of other such enterprises, resulting in a wealth of new burial grounds over the next decade. These site were later gathered together beneath the informal nickname ‘The Magnificent Seven.’

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Part of the gatehouse at the entrance to the West Cemetery (Image © A Grave Announcement)

Highgate is a site of enormous proportions. Now divided into its western and eastern halves (see the forthcoming second part of this post), the former can only be entered via a guided tour (you can book online here). The imposing and turreted Gothic gatehouse through which one enters plays host to both an Anglican and Nonconformist chapel, whilst its arch proudly proclaims the ‘London Cemetery’ moniker of its founding company, formally established in 1836 in imitation of the aforementioned corporation at Kensal Green. The design apes that of a triumphal arch, as if heralding its own deathly boulevard, a via mortis, stygian thoroughfare penetrating the gloom. This is more apt than ever when one realises that, beneath the entryway, a tunnel was carved out to receive coffins for transportation via an hydraulic lift between the Anglican mortuary chapel and East cemetery expansion, a discreet passage for casket removal, slipping quietly beneath the carriage-laden and thronged street amidst services for the dead, a way to ensure that the body remained continuously within consecrated ground between ceremony and inhumation.

Once Upon a Midnight ‘Geary’

Stephen Geary (1797-1854) was appointed as architect for the original burial ground on the west where, in a fitting coordination, he was himself later interred. Geary had been a founder of the London Cemetery Company formed for the purpose of developing Highgate, and was thus a perfect candidate for bringing this sepulchral vision to life. To support his efforts, he employed James Bunstone Bunning as surveyor, later a City of London architect who designed who designed, inter alia, the City of London School, the City Prison and parts of Brunel’s Hungerford Suspension Bridge. In addition, David Ramsey, renowned for the beauty of his gardens, was brought on board as landscaper and nurseryman.

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James Bunstone Bunning, Illustrated London News (October 28th, 1865)

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Morning Advertiser (18.05.1836)

The team was now in place – next, the site. Seventeen acres of land on the slopes of Highgate Hill, originally belonging to Ashurst House and its estate, was purchased for £3500 (c. £211,500). It took three years of careful planning and execution to bring the project to completion, with a methodical approach to formal planting and configuration of the grounds, all accompanied by the grand architectural models of Geary and Bunning. Such was the ambitious scale of the undertaking that the London Cemetery Company even developed their own brickworks to ensure timely delivery.

In September 1838, an announcement was made in the Morning Post and elsewhere in the press, informing the residents of the city that ‘the Highgate Cemetery is finished and ready for Consecration.’ Once the latter had taken place, the first occupants could lay down to rest in sacred earth.

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The area was consecrated on the 20th of May, 1839, by the Right Reverend Charles James Blomfield, Lord Bishop of London, who swiftly dedicated the ground to St. James.

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Charles James Blomfield by Thomas Lawrence (St Edmundsbury Museums)

Blomfield was a former classical scholar known for his fierce debating skills in the House of Lords. In previous years, he had presided over a scheme to accelerate the building of churches in the capital with, according to his fellow churchmen, ‘almost superhuman exertions.’ He brought this ecclesiastical drive with him to the Highgate ceremonial, and, as a man with interests in the ancient world, must have been impressed by the sheer  splendour and scale of Geary and Bunning’s architectural foundation.

The cemetery’s land was partitioned in accordance with denomination – the Church of England received fifteen acres and the Dissenters, two.

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The Globe, 25.05.1839

The first burial took place six days later, on the 26th of May. Elizabeth Jackson, aged 36 and formerly of Little Windmill Street in Soho, had paid 3 guineas for the privilege of a Highgate interment. For a considerable period, however, Elizabeth’s grave stood mournfully bereft of neighbours – initial applicants to the cemetery were distributed throughout its acres, favouring lots away from the entrance and main paths proper.

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The Grave of Elizabeth Jackson © Bill Nicholls

Slowly and steadily, however, from this first quiet entombment of Elizabeth, West Cemetery became grandeur itself, a site bedecked with saxeous funerary monuments, pomp-laden announcement of magnificent ceremony, ever in flux, proliferating and gasping under the weight of its own departed. It was the place to be and the place to be seen to be dead, a fashionable funereal locus where the well-heeled flocked in their droves, enviously admiring each other’s passage into the earth. Highgate was on the map.

From its very inception, the London Cemetery Company advertised widely, building momentum around the idea of a Highgate interment,  an insistent presence in the city’s newspapers. This early offering from The Morning Post in May 1839 presents a simple summary of the services available, advising interested parties to apply at the corporation’s offices in Moorgate-Street, at the ‘back of the Bank.’

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Not only was Highgate presented as the latest and greatest burial site for your consideration, but it was also configured as somewhere you ought to visit for your own edification, a place to roam, ‘OPEN DAILY till Eight o’Clock P.M., free of charge.’ Bury your relatives and, while you’re there, take advantage of the grounds. Soak up the sense of place. Be at one with your Dearly Departed. According to the Stamford Mercury of the 9th August, 1839, Highgate’s popularity was such that ‘more than 7000 persons’ had visited in one day. The piece singles out the architectural wonders of the site, in addition to ‘the view from the terrace’ which ‘extends for a distance of thirty miles, and embraces the river Thames as far as Gravesend, the Surrey hills, and the Knock-bold beeches in Kent.’

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Into the Woods

Upon entering this great place and following the path up the hillside, the visitor is struck by the gateway to the impressive Egyptian Avenue, a Pharaonic arch flanked by two columns on either side. This is, in turn, guarded by twin obelisks, stone guardians of the dead. The structure is a striking example of the Egyptian Revival style so beloved by the Victorians, an architectural system grounded in the recycling and reworking of the motifs of ancient Egypt. Interest in the latter emerged from the fanfare surrounding the Napoleonic campaigns in Alexandria and Cairo (1798-1801), a military cavalcade which contained, rather unusually, a sizeable contingent of scholars and scientists. You may be familiar with Pierre-François Bouchard’s associated discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, now housed in the British Museum. Reports of the work and finds of these intellectual expeditionists generated a growing fascination with Egyptology in Europe, a preoccupation which had a great effect on the aesthetic fabric of the continent. Indeed, the centrality of death to ancient Egyptian ritual practice was a phenomenon which could be readily transferred to the emergent funerary architecture of the nineteenth-century burial places of Western Europe.

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Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue

The road beyond this entryway continues at a gentle incline. Bordering the track are lines of family vaults, home to the slumbering dead, their entrances adorned with a variety of funeral symbols. These cavities were made to accommodate multiple coffins in order to ensure that families could be buried together, sealed units, metaphorically and literally, affection and companionship assured until the end of time. Leaving this sepulchral cavern behind, one emerges into the almost indescribably exquisite Circle of Lebanon, a wheel of tombs arranged around the roots of a magnificent cedar tree, a striking mass in place long before the construction of the cemetery, part of the grounds of the aforementioned Ashurst Estate. I felt as if I had emerged into a timeless space, where nature and architecture were in happy communion, where as many memories circulated as the abundant needles of the cedar’s leaves. Interestingly, the circular disposition of these burial chambers has formed an enclosure serving as an impromptu plant pot within which the tree is contained. There are two rings of such tombs: the inner circle of twenty vaults was part of the original design and was supplemented by an outer addition of sixteen sepulchres in the 1870s, a facility expanded in response to the popular clamour for a slice of this particular piece of eternity. In addition, one finds here the columbarium,  a series of cubicles fashioned for the purpose of holding urns full of ashes, an unpopular provision in the Victorian period when cremation was looked upon with righteous suspicion. It was only following the passage of the Cremation Act in 1902 that the practice became more commonplace, and the notion that the sanctity of the body remain undisturbed post-mortem began to be overcome.

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Circle of Lebanon © Bill Nicholls

In this same area, the terrace catacombs in Gothic style are to be found, burial spaces hewn from the very hillside itself. Indeed, they occupy the same space as the previous deck of the garden of Ashurst House, formerly a splendid viewpoint from which to gaze out upon the teeming life of the city. Visitors to the cemetery would seek out this spot for a genteel promenade, ambling up and down in their finest, away from the heady stink of the London smog. As an aside, if you enjoy bitumen and random facts intended for pub quizzes, the terrace is also apparently the earliest asphalted building in the UK. Within the structure, one encounters a brick-vaulted, eighty-yard long passageway filled with separate recesses on both sides, capable of housing an entire coffin from floor to ceiling. In total, the catacombs hold eight hundred and forty such caskets in apertures which are themselves sealed with memorial plaques or small glass windows for inspection. When laying the deceased to rest in this place, coffins were apparently situated with the heads of the cadavers closest to the opening, meaning that relatives could easily commune with their dead.  

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Illustrated London News (01.09.1974)

Behind the Circle of Lebanon is what can only be described as an immense mass of a tomb: the eye-waveringly ornate mausoleum of Julius Beer. This is a big beast of a burial chamber, the Highgate leviathan. A square structure with bronze doors, pyramidal roof carved to resemble roof-tiles and arched windows, the edifice is said to have been inspired by the fearsome Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, and was designed by John Oldrid Scott (1841-1913), an architect experienced in the construction of religious buildings.

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The Mausoleum of Julius Beer (by Steve James)

The architraved doorway bears an inscription with a powerfully simple message to passersby, identifying itself as the ‘Mausoleum of Julius Beer.’ The opulent theme continues within, as the tiled walls, golden mosaic lining the dome and Corinthian columns perfectly accompany the pièce de resistance, namely the bas-relief representing Julius’ deceased daughter Ada as a winged child, who had died of consumption aged only six, being spirited upwards to heaven by an angel.

Julius Beer is a fascinating example of the model of the self-made man. Born in Frankfurt, he came to London and promptly made an intimidatingly large amount of money on the London Stock Exchange, before gobbling up several newspapers: the Observer and the Sunday Times. A quirky and perhaps apocryphal tale accompanies this majestic tomb – having become embittered by his lack of acceptance in polite society, Julius decided that, in death, he would have the last laugh. In 1876, he parted with £800 (c. £52,950) for the site, in addition to an eye-watering £5000 (c. £330,923) for construction, placing this, the tallest and largest monument in the cemetery, in such a position so as to utterly dominate the otherwise splendid view from the terrace, thereby damning in the process a phalanx of afternoon constitutionals. We should not forget, however, that the project was, in its essence, a house of mourning for his little Ada, the adding of a bombastic note to the burial ground’s architecture of grief to memorialise his daughter. Once I myself had fully taken in its immensity, I was left with nothing but a quiet sense of humanity, thinking of the pathos inspired by the severing of the parental bond.

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Relief Panel: Angel Lifting a Winged Child by Thomas

Down Memory Lane

There are many other graves of note on this side of Highgate, more than a mere written piece can ever hope to encapsulate. Amidst the meandering footpaths and untamed thickets, individuals of great note have found their rest – from the poet Christina Rossetti to the scientist Michael Faraday, from the pioneering lesbian author Radclyffe Hall to the renowned novelist Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm. Even the eponymous founder of the Crufts dog show, Charles Cruft, can be found occupying a tomb. It is a fascinating pastiche of the great and the good, the devoted and the quiet, the industrious and the kind, the pauper and the poet. In the end, all roads lead to Highgate. 

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Memorial Plaque to Radclyffe Hall, Circle of Lebanon (by Scott Michaels)

Indeed, the eye is drawn not only to those graves commemorating the lives of such eternally famous figures, but also to those who, having once achieved renown, languish, known only to researchers and scholars, campaigners and active taphophiles. One example might be Ellen Wood (1814-1887), better known as the famous writer Mrs. Henry Wood, a literary figure who was as celebrated as Charles Dickens in her era. Her books were Victorian bestsellers, snapped up in an instant by her devoted followers. Particularly loved was her sensation novel East Lynne, an elaborate offering of mistaken identity and comic misunderstanding. On her death, she left an estate worth £36,000, an enormous sum equating to £2,500,000 in today’s money.

Hodges, Joseph Sydney Willis, 1828-1900; Mrs Henry Wood (1814-1887)

Mrs Henry Wood – Joseph Sydney Willis Hodges (© Worcester Guildhall)

These individuals of distinction rub shoulders with those otherwise unknown. As long as there were available funds, Highgate was open to everyone, with your cheque made out to death, the great leveller of us all. Take this beautiful and arresting monument, ‘The Sleeping Angel,’ in memory of Mary Nichols, wife of Bank Manager Harold. The figure atop her stony bed slumbers in perpetuity, her wings carefully folded, an expression of profound mourning. She is the perfect representation of peace. 

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‘The Sleeping Angel’ (Monument to Mary Nichols) by Tom Bennett 

Reflecting on what we had seen, we made our way back to the entrance, steeped in poignant contemplation. My trip to the east side of the cemetery would be just as eventful, allowing me the opportunity to explore further Highgate’s 170,000 graves, and to bring yet more stories of quiet voices unheard back to life.

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Image © A Grave Announcement

💀 Thanks for Reading!

A Grave Announcement (@AGraveAnnounce)

Sources

With thanks to the following which proved very useful in compiling this account:

British Newspaper Archive

Highgate Cemetery

Historic England

National Archives

Natural History Museum – ‘A History of Burial in London’

The Peasants are Revolting: Samuel Holberry, Mary Cooper and the Sheffield Uprising

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Image by A Grave Announcement

It was an unusually cold Monday morning for early September when I, having found myself in Sheffield for the day, decided to see for myself the Victorian splendour of Sheffield General Cemetery. I set off in the magnificently tree-lined Nether Edge, a prosperous borough raised aloft in the southern part of the city, both looking down into the cavernous valleys of the urban sprawl and gazing away at the distant countryside of the city’s hill-studded environs. I made my way along a good number of such arboreal boulevards, espying a church or two amidst what seemed like  marshalled battalions of terraced dwellings, disappearing placidly into the horizon.

The cemetery itself is located in the neighbouring area of Sharrow, bordered by the aptly named Cemetery Road, along which I myself travelled, and edged on the other side by the indolent waters of the Porter Brook. I did not enter through the impressive neo-classical gatehouse, although, upon seeing this later, I was inevitably reminded of a Roman triumphal arch, a portal through which bodies would pass, overpowered by Death’s parading victory, in a final journey of silence. Rather, I myself passed through the so-called Egyptian Gate, gazed upon by twin ouroboroi – etymological tail-eaters – serpentine rings formed by coiled snakes with tails in their mouths, symbolising unity, eternity and a kind of cyclical balance. A winged sun surmounted the design, a pronounced symbol in the iconography of the Ancient Near East.

The site of the cemetery is spread across a quarried hillside, interspersed by a number of footpaths, both formal and informal, in what is now, I am told, a Grade II listed park. The presence of buildings manifestly influenced by Greek and Egyptian architectural styles attests to the grandeur and magnificence of the scope of the design – not merely a fine cemetery this, but a veritable Necropolis – a real life city of the dead.

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Image by A Grave Announcement

Opened in 1836, this Nonconformist cemetery holds over 87,000 burials, formerly serving as Victorian Sheffield’s main repository for the disposal of the dead. Rampant overcrowding, rife disease and paltry conditions in the churchyards of Sheffield had necessitated the construction of a burial site away from the dense congestion of the city itself. In 1834 a private enterprise, the Sheffield General Cemetery Company,’ was established with committee and shareholders, and the concern immediately began to gather funds for the project through public subscription. Their activities were reported in the press, as seen here in the Yorkshire Gazette of the 3rd of May 1834:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY.- A meeting

of the shareholders in this undertaking took place on Monday,

at the Cutlers’ Hall, T.A.Ward, Esq., in the chair. It

was stated, that £26,400 was already subscribed, but that

£25,000 would be amply sufficient to carry the object of the

society into effect. It was agreed, that the committee should

select a piece or several pieces of ground, and submit the choice

to a future meeting.

The requisite land was procured for £1900 and work soon commenced on the site. Designed by the Sheffield architect Samuel Worth and assisted by the horticulturalist Robert Marnock who superintended the layout, progress was rapid, aided considerably by the fact that the stone necessary for construction could be quarried from the very site itself. The first vault was sold on the 1st of January, 1836, and, amidst predictions of the cemetery’s imminent completion, the transaction was heralded with enthusiasm in the edition of the Sheffield Independent released on the following day:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY. – We understand

that the first and only finished family vault was sold

yesterday. It is calculated to contain about twenty coffins

in so many separate compartments, all neatly built with

stone and bricks. The ground and buildings are now

assuming a very imposing appearance, and it appears

probable that early in the Spring, the whole will be

completed.

As the year advanced and the business of the cemetery gathered momentum, directors of the cemetery were appointed and adverts placed for individuals to serve as employees, as seen here in the Sheffield Independent of the 28th May 1836, calling for a Sexton and Gatekeeper in residence:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY           

Wanted, a Steady, Active Man, who is married, to fill the Situations of SEXTON and GATEKEEPER, at the Sheffield General Cemetery. A Person who understands Gardening will be preferred. He will have a Residence, rent free, on the premises. Applications, with Testimonials of Character, addressed to the Directors of the Cemetery, must be presented at the Offices of Mr. JOHN WILLIAM SMITH, or Mr. GEORGE WELLS, Sheffield, on or before the 6th of June next. – Post letters to be paid.

The first burial was that of Mary Ann Fish, the wife of a book-keeper, having sadly succumbed to tuberculosis. Indeed, once ready to receive those to be interred, the cemetery had placed official advertisements in local newspapers. This extract, from the Sheffield Iris on the 9th of August 1836, announces the site’s readiness to bury the dead, a proclamation issued under the name of the Reverend William Thornhill Kidd of the Sheffield parish Eccleshall Bierlow:

Sheffield General Cemetery.

MINISTER AND REGISTRAR,

The Rev. William Thornhill Kidd.

This beautiful Place of Sepulture, whose picturesque

and architectural attractions are so well

known to the Inhabitants of this Town, arranged

upon a plan admirably adapted to the purposes for

which it was designed, IS NOW READY FOR

THE INTERMENT OF THE DEAD. Vaults of

almost every description and size, and finished in the

most complete manner, may, by an early Application,

be purchased upon reasonable terms; and Graves, in

various situations, the most open or the most secluded,

are also disposable to the choice of the Public.

In this place, in an alleyway lined with crooked tombstones, I stumbled across the final resting place of one Samuel Holberry, the name faintly familiar, the epitaph lengthy and full-hearted:

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Image by A Grave Announcement

SACRED

to the Memory of

SAMUEL HOLBERRY.

WHO AT THE EARLY AGE OF 27 DIED

IN YORK CASTLE, AFTER SUFFERING

AN IMPRISONMENT OF 2 YEARS AND 3

MONTHS, JUNE 21st, 1842.

FOR ADVOCATING WHAT TO HIM APPEARED

TO BE THE TRUE INTEREST OF THE PEOPLE OF

ENGLAND.

VANISH’D IS THE FEVERISH DEAM OF LIFE:-

THE RICH AND POOR FIND NO DISTINCTION HERE,

THE GREAT AND LOWLY END THEIR CARE AND STRIFE,

THE WELL BELOVED MAY HAVE AFFECTIONS TEAR.

BUT AT THE LAST, THE OPPRESSOR AND THE SLAVE

SHALL EQUAL STAND BEFORE THE BAR OF GOD;

OF HIM, WHO LIFE, AND HOPE, AND FREEDOM GAVE,

TO ALL THAT THRO’ THIS VALE OF TEARS HAVE TROD.

LET NONE THEN MURMUR ‘GAINST THE WISE DECREE,

THAT OPEN’D THE DOOR, AND SET THE CAPTIVE FREE.

ALSO OF SAMUEL JOHN, HIS SON WHO

DIED IN HIS INFANCY.

THIS TABLET WAS ERECTED BY HIS BEREFT WIDOW.

I wondered why I felt such a twinge of recognition upon scanning these words, and I pondered too about the identity of the grieving widow, nameless, her own exertions unmarked, compelled by injustice to erect this monument to her lost husband, an appeal to martyrdom and an attempt at post-mortem exoneration. A subsequent search brought my ailing memory back to life: Samuel Holberry, the Chartist activist, organiser of the Sheffield Uprising and champion of democracy. Grievously ill-treated at the end, his death stands as a testament to governmental misconduct and penal brutality in a demonstration of the barbaric treatment of one whose very existence was devoted to the advocation of political rights for the people. I vowed to look into his life and, in doing so, to attempt to restore the selfhood of that unnamed widow.

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Bust of Samuel Holberry (Photo by River Sheaf)

Samuel Holberry was born in the small village of Gamston, Nottinghamshire in 1814, and was baptised on the 21stof November in that same year. His father John was an agricultural labourer, working on the Duke of Newcastle’s estate, and had married his mother Martha Simpson on the 19th of December, 1793, in Grove, also in Nottinghamshire. Martha and John had nine children in total, of whom Samuel was the youngest. He grew up working on the land, watching over livestock and scaring off birds, jobs typical of child workers at the time, whilst receiving some basic schooling, before achieving the position of labourer like his father.

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‘Gamston Village and Church’ by Roger Reach is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Samuel, however, was restless and unsettled, making the decision in March 1832 to leave the area and enlist, following in the footsteps of his brother. Being only seventeen at the time, he was forced to lie about his age, joining the ranks of the 33rd infantry and subsequently serving in Ireland and Northampton. It was during his time in the latter that he became politically sensitive – the town was a bastion of radical activity and had considerable ties with the NUWC, The National Union of the Working Classes, a group comprising those who rejected the 1832 reform bill as unrepresentative of the rights of working people and retained links with the unions. Such political activism in Northampton came to be a preserve of the shoemakers with whom Samuel himself came to associate.

In April 1835, Samuel bought himself out the army, moving to Sheffield where he began working as a distiller, following a brief period as a barrel-maker. It was here that he met Mary Cooper, born in 1816 to John and Ann Cooper, labourers of Oakes Green, Attercliffe, Sheffield. Mary and Samuel soon established a relationship. In 1837 the pair were  separated, however, as Samuel was made out of work and spent some time in London, before returning to marry Mary on the 22nd of October in that same year, and settling in Sheffield. Despite joining the Sheffield Working Men’s Association towards the end of 1838, driven by his desire to extend the political rights enshrined within the aforementioned 1832 Reform Act, he did not yet announce himself as an active Chartist.

This latter movement had arisen from the People’s Charter, centring itself upon ‘a charter of rights for all,’ and, in particular, promoting mass enfranchisement. Authored mainly by William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association and introduced in Glasgow in May of 1838, it laid out six features of Chartist ideology deemed necessary for electoral reform: universal suffrage, no property qualification, annual parliaments, equal representation, payment of members and vote by secret ballot. Both Mary and her husband became increasingly involved in these Chartist aims and objectives and began to engage in a number of peaceful protests.

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‘The People’s Charter’ by the Working Men’s Association is licensed under CC by 2.0

The rejection of the Chartists’ strategy of moral resistance in 1839 after the failure of the above petition gave rise to a fractious leadership, riddled by division and dissent over the future of the movement. With some local leaders advocating a physical response, an initial uprising took place in Newport in Wales (the Newport Rising), but was swiftly suppressed, hamstrung by its own lack of proper planning. In this climate of insecurity and increasing anger, Samuel and Mary became involved in calls for more radical action, with Samuel spearheading proposals for an armed rebellion and appropriation of key settlements throughout the region. It was in this climate of discord and disunity that the Sheffield Rising was conceived, the event for which Samuel and Mary would become almost national celebrities.

With Samuel now in a leadership position alongside other prominent Chartists, more extreme plans began to be take shape. There was talk of seizing control of public buildings in Sheffield, namely the Town Hall and the Fortune Inn, with the aid of firepower and explosives. The houses of magistrates would also be torched. Before such proposals could come to fruition, however, the group was betrayed by the Rotherham landlord of the Station Inn, James Allen, on the 11th of January, 1840. Both Samuel and Mary, in addition to a number of their fellow activists, were arrested for conspiracy. Police officers Atcherly and Wilde had entered a dwelling owned by Samuel on Eyre Lane close to midnight, finding Holberry reclining in bed, fully clothed except for his stockinged feet, illuminated by the intermittent flickering of a bedside candle. According to the Northern Star of the 21st March 1840, the conversation proceeded as follows:

‘Are you one of the people called the Chartists?’ said Wilde.
‘Yes.’ replied Holberry.
‘This dagger is a deadly weapon – you surely would not take life with it?” said Atcherly.’
‘Yes; but I would in defence of the Charter, and to obtain liberty” replied Holberry.’

Whilst Samuel and his associates were held in custody, Mary was released, remaining tight-lipped throughout her interrogation. As Gammage (1969:173) notes, ‘Mrs. Holberry, a very interesting woman, was also arrested; but the evidence against her not being sufficient, she was discharged.’

Unrepentant, Samuel openly admitted his intentions to the police and swore that he would die for Chartist principles. Undeterred, the authorities admitted him for trial at Sheffield Assizes, charging Samuel with seditious conspiracy. A reporter for the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent of the 18th January 1840 described Samuel (and, elliptically, Mary in attendance) as follows:

Samuel Holberry: a very tall, well formed, and muscular young man, with much of the appearance and manner of an itinerant showman.

Mary Holberry: his wife.

Samuel’s importance both to the Chartists and the case itself can be seen in these opening remarks of the prosecuting Attorney General in the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette of the 20th March, 1840:

‘In regard to Holberry, it will be proved that he was a leader, and attended the class meetings; that he attended a meeting at a place called Fig Tree Lane, where the delegates used to attend, and that he attended likewise a meeting held in Lambert-Street, where the details of the plan were arranged. He was, I may say, the contriver of the scheme.’

During the course of the trial, the plans of Holberry and his associates to foment disorder by using force were laid bare. In this extract from the Northern Star on the 21st March, 1840, the testimony of Chartist Samuel Thompson revealed the extent of Holberry’s proposed charge:

‘He said we must all be at the Town Hall and the Tontine [Hotel] by two o’clock, as they must be the places to be first taken. The classes were to come up to take these places, one man first from every class, then two, and the whole body. Exactly as the clock struck two they were to rush into the Town Hall and Tontine, and take possession of them. Boardman said he could bring about fifty, and I said I could bring about fifty … If they got the Tontine, they were to shut the gates, and barricade them with the coaches inside. When they got into the Town Hall, one party was to occupy the floor, and the others were to go above. We then began to talk about the ‘cats’, the instruments to lame the horses, and it was proposed to throw them in Snig Hill, leading from the barracks, and they were to be thrown at the corner of the Town Hall and the Albion. Holberry said that he and eighty-three picked men were to go after the soldiers when they were called out and fire the straw chamber. One of them was to do it by climbing the spout and throwing a fire-ball in it. That, it was said, would set fire to the Riding School. The ones and twos who came up were to assassinate all the soldiers and watchmen they met … Holberry said in the event of their being baffled, they must ‘Moscow the town’.’

Unsurprisingly, it was as a result of his own candour as regards his offences that Samuel received a guilty verdict (along with twenty-nine others – six were acquitted) and he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Sent to the gaol at Northallerton, he was illegally placed upon the treadmill, a form of punishment banned by the government in 1902 forcing the prisoner to walk  for extremely lengthy periods as a means of powering equipment or producing some kind of energy. Samuel also underwent what was termed the ‘silent system,’ a combination of stringent diet, extended periods on the above machinery and solitary confinement.

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‘Prisoners Working At The Tread-wheel, And Others Exercising,’ by Henry Mayhew & John Binny is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Whilst confined in that place, Mary was only able to visit her husband once, afflicted by grief at the death of their only son in October 1840. Indeed, she had suffered a breakdown and was supported by the National Charter Association. She was, however, a continuous advocate on Samuel’s behalf and wrote a number of letters to him in prison, often enclosing care packages filled with requested items. In this epistle, held in the Sheffield Archives, Mary lists such articles, including here a comb and a brush and two stocking needles:

Indeed, during his incarceration, Samuel received many other letters from supporters and associates, of which fifteen (including that above) survive in the collection of the above-named Sheffield Archives.

Following Samuel’s move from Northallerton Gaol to the hospital at York castle in September 1841, his already fragile health seriously deteriorated. On the 21st of June 1842 he succumbed to inflammation of the liver, brought about by the devastating advance of tuberculosis. The appalling state of the conditions in which Samuel had been imprisoned was revealed in the aftermath of the furore surrounding his death, when the House of Commons requested copies of all the correspondence relating to the prisoner between the Home Secretary and the prison authorities. In  reading these dispatches, it is clear that those involved in his care were well-aware of Samuel’s disproportionate suffering. Such missives were published at length in the newspaper, as seen here in a selection from the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser of the 30th of July 1842:

Return to an address of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated July 6, 1842, for a copy of all communications that have passed between the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the authorities of York Castle, from the beginning of September, 1841, to the present time, relative to the state of heath and death of Samuel Holberry.

Whitehall, 16th September, 1841

Gentlemen- Secretary Sir James Graham having deemed it expedient to give directions for the removal of Samuel Holberry from Northallerton Gaol to the York Castle, there to undergo the remaining term of his imprisonment, I am directed to request you to call upon the surgeon of the latter prison to pay constant and particular attention to the prisoner’s health, and to report theron to Sir James Graham from time to time.

I am, &c.,

(Signed) S.M.PHILLIPPS

The Visiting Magistrates of York Castle

[…]

Samuel Holberry, the Chartist prisoner in York Castle, is suffering from severe pain in the left side, the effect of chronic inflammation of the left lobe of the liver, extending to to [sic] the stomach, and, perhaps, the colon, which, from his having had former attacks, I believe to be organic disease. His digestion is very bad, and he is very weak; and I consider him to be in great danger. I am of an opinion that his symptoms have increased, and his health has been impaired, of late, by the length of the confinement, and the great anxiety of mind he appears to have suffered since his imprisonment.

(Signed)

                                                                                                                GEORGE CHAMPNEY.

Surgeon to the York Castle

7th June 1842.

York Castle, 21st June, 1842.

SIR, – As the gaoler of this prison is unavoidably absent at the Insolvent Sessions at Wakefield, I have to report the death of Samuel Holberry, the Chartist, who died this morning rather suddenly.

Such were the sympathies for his widow Mary Cooper in the aftermath of his death and such was the outrage at his fate, that a rousing call to obtain support for Mary was published in the Chartist Northern Star of the 16th July 1842, entitled ‘AN APPEAL TO THE CHARTISTS OF GREAT BRITAIN, IN BEHALF OF THE WIDOW OF SAMUEL HOLBERRY:’

BRETHREN.- We appeal to you in behalf of the widow of one of nature’s nobles, who has at last fallen a martyr for the rights and liberties of mankind. Samuel Holberry is no more, but oh could his dungeon walls find tongues to describe the anguish they have witnessed, the painful agony they endured, and the acute torture of his mind, when bursting the portals of a prison’s gloom, his soul left its clay tenement,without the kind assistance of a fond wife to minister to his wants, or to close his dying eyes. Who can pourtray [sic] the agony of his sufferings?…

Brethren, that wife he has left for your protection.

Sister democrats, do you do your duty. Your sister, though young in years, has drunk deeply of the cup of affliction. It is for you to administer the balm of consolation – to sympathise with the afflicted, and to comfort the heartbroken…

Sheffield has promptly and nobly come forward to assist in the good work, and to our townsmen we return our thanks for their hearty and generous sympathy so well proven upon this melancholy occasion. To the Chartists of York we also return our warmest thanks for their timely and patriotic aid, and to our brother democrats in other parts of the country who without waiting for this appeal have already commenced collecting monies for the support of Mrs Holberry. We have purchased the ground where the  remains of the martyr repose, and intend to erect a plain monument over the grave. To accomplish this, and secure for the widow a maintenance for the future, we expect the cooperation and assistance of every Chartist in the kingdom…’

The ensuing funeral on the 27th of June 1842 was a very public affair, attended by between 20,000 to 50,000 people who lined the route of the procession from Attercliffe all the way to Sheffield General Cemetery. The cortege was led by a band of musicians playing Pleyell’s German Hymn and festooned with a large black banner, on one side of which read ‘Thou shalt do no murder’ and on the other ‘Vengeance is mine, and I will repay it, saith the Lord.’ All the funeral trappings of an affluent send-off were present, most notably the elaborate hearse and the mourning coaches. On the name-plate of the coffin itself was the following inscription: ‘Samuel Holberry, died a martyr to the cause of democracy, June 21, 1842, aged 27.’

Once the line had reached the burial plot, a hymn composed especially for the occasion was sung, ‘Great God! Is this the patriot’s doom!’ by John Henry Bramwich, a Chartist hymn writer from Leicestershire:

Great God! Is this the patriot’s doom!

Shall they who dare defend the slave

Be hurled within a prison’s gloom,

To fit them for an early grave!

Shall victim after victim fall

A prey to cruel class-made laws?

Forbid it, Lord! on Thee we call,

Protect us, and defend our cause!

In vain we prayed the powers that be,

to burst the drooping captive’s chain;

But mercy, Lord, belongs to Thee,

For Thou hast freed him from all pain.

Is this the price of liberty!

Must martyrs fail to gain the prize?

Then be it so; we will be free,

Or all become a sacrifice.

Tho’ freedom mourns her murder’d son,

And weeping friends surround his bier;

Tho’ tears like mountain torrents run,

Our cause is watered by each tear.

Oh! may his fate cement the bond

That binds us to our glorious cause!

Raise, raise the cry, let all respond,

Justice, and pure and equal laws.

Those assembled were then addressed by George Harvey, a National Charter Association leader, in a speech which served as a call to arms, vowing that Chartists will ‘annihilate forever the blood-stained despotism which has slain its thousands of martyrs, and tens of thousands of patriots, and immolated at its shrine the lovers of liberty and truth.’ Samuel was also commemorated throughout the nation by local Chartist meetings, his sacrifice lauded and confirmed.

Samuel Holberry’s Sheffield legacy lives on. In 1998, the Holberry Cascades were named in his memory, located in the Peace Gardens next to the Town Hall.

Holberry Cascades

‘Holberry Cascades’ by Derek Harper is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This designation was also marked with a plaque, asserting that Holberry ‘gave his life for what he believed to be the true interest of the people of England – a democratic society that would guarantee freedom, equality and security for all.’ There could be no more fitting tribute to the struggle and activism of the man.

Holberry Plaque

‘Holberry Plaque, Peace Gardens, Sheffield’ by Chemical Engineer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As for his widow Mary Cooper, she continued to campaign alongside the movement until it was disbanded in the 1850s. She had remarried a widower, Charles Pearson, in 1845 who worked as a publican. Three children subsequently followed. The first was named Holberry in homage to Mary’s first husband, in what was also a powerful reminder of her own duty and sacrifice in pursuit of the Chartist cause.

A Grave Announcement (@AGraveAnnounce)

Bibliography

R. G. Gammage, History of the Chartist movement, 1837–1854, new edn. (1894), 173, 175, 213–16

R. Hutchins, ‘Holberry, Samuel (1814-1842)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), pp.

A Burial Fit For A King: Annie Fletcher, Royal Nurse In Residence

‘the Lancashire Girl who was called to nurse a King’

Todmorden Advertiser and Hebden Bridge Newsletter, May 1st 1903

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Nurse Annie Fletcher (Wigan Observer and District Advertiser May 14th, 1910)

I have previously written about my meanderings in All Saints Churchyard in Marple, Stockport, and the burial ground’s viridescent grave settings, interspersed with pathways of charmingly disordered stones, recycled and reused to form these sepulchral avenues. I had discussed my encounter in this place with Lieutenant Edmund Turner Young and his family memorial, a man lost on the sandy shores of Gallipoli at the age of 33. My eye was also struck, however, by a grave marker in black marble, seeming to sparkle iridescently in the dappled light of a sporadic sun.

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The grave of Annie Fletcher (and sister Mary). Image by A Grave Announcement

The inscription was addressed to one Annie Fletcher (Nan), advertising her profession as that of Resident Nurse to their Majesties King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria. I wondered why a testament to such esteemed royal service was situated in a rural parish churchyard, unassumingly guarding the adjacent cobbled pathway, mingling with the other stones of churchgoers long gone. The lengthy epitaph reads as follows:

Sacred to the Memory of

Annie Fletcher (Nan)

of

“Vedal” Heeley Road, St Annes-On-Sea.

Died 13th May 1933, Aged 68 Years.

For 30 Years Resident Nurse

(Betty)

To Their Majesties

King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra

and

H.R.H. Princess Victoria.

Also Mary Horton

Sister of the Above

Died 22nd December 1960

In her 90th Year

“At Rest.”

Ann Fletcher (known to all as Annie) was born in 1865 in Beeston, Yorkshire, the first child of William and Sarah Fletcher, whose origins lay in Aspull, Lancashire, a town near Wigan. Her father was involved in the coal-mining industry from an early age – on the 1851 census he is listed as a waggoner from the age of eleven. This was a back-breaking job necessitating the pushing of heavy and loaded carts away from the coalface. By 1871, Sarah and William had moved to Wigan where they were living at Ormandys Houses, a row of terraces south of the town centre, adjacent to the Leeds and Liverpool canal . Here, the six-year old Annie was joined by a brother, three-year old John William Fletcher, and a sister, new-born baby Mary, as seen on Annie’s grave marker above.

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Beeston, West Yorkshire, Birthplace of Annie Fletcher (‘Beeston. West Yorks. Station 1779989 ae7d591c’ by Ben Brooksbank is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The personal drive and ambition of Annie’s father ensured that the family rose through the ranks. Following another move to the town of Buckley in Flintshire, North-East Wales, William obtained the position of Colliery Manager, rising impressively from the lowest rung of the ladder to a senior managerial position in a 29-year period. There were now seven children, ranging from the ages of one to sixteen.

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A Typical Coal-Mining Scene (‘Coal-mining’ by The Graphic 1871 is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Annie, however, had been working as a nurse since 1891, associated with the Women’s Hospital in Shaw-Street, Liverpool, a place she had entered in 1889, during which time she trained under Miss Carless. From August 1893, to March 1896, she was made charge nurse. It was at this time that she encountered Royal Surgeon Sir Frederick Treves (1853-1923), the man responsible for the care of Joseph Merrick, the so-called “Elephant Man.” Having repaired for a while to Manchester, she undertook a brief stint in a similar hospital for women. In 1901, she went down to London where she held a series of other nursing appointments, one of which was as matron of a small hospital, before joining the staff of Miss Ethel M’Caul’s (1867-1931) nursing home. The latter was a Royal Red Cross nurse and prominent figure in the London nursing community who had established this private medical institution at 51 Welbeck Street. It was fitted with fifteen beds, an operating theatre and a staff of twenty, of whom ten were nurses.

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Sir Frederick Treves (‘Sir Frederick Treves. Lithograph, 1884’ by the Wellcome Trust licensed under CC BY 2.0)

This experience held her in such good stead that she became affiliated with the King Edward Hospital in Grosvenor Gardens and the Royal Physicians who operated there. The meteoric rise of her career was outlined by the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser of the 14th May 1910 as follows:

‘At first she was associated for several years with the Hospital for Women in Shaw-street, Liverpool, and before joining the staff of the nursing home under Miss Ethel M’Caul, R.R.C., she held other nursing appointments, among these being that of matron of a small hospital. She had so perfected her training in the profession she adopted that she was able to become associated with the King Edward Hospital, Grosvenor Gardens, London, with which the Royal physicians were identified, and in this way she became the King’s nurse.’

As a consequence of this, she took on the role of Second Nurse to King Edward VII himself in 1902, following his operation for appendicitis which had caused the coronation, set for the 26th of June 1902, to be postponed. Annie had taken on responsibility for the night shift in the rota, relieving her colleague Miss Haine. Both nurses had been selected on account of their special knowledge of abdominal surgery. The   procedure itself, performed by Sir Frederick Treves with a Miss Tarr as surgical nurse, at that same private nursing home of Miss Ethel M’Caul, had been somewhat revolutionary – a small incision was made in the abdominal wall, through which a pint of pus from the infected abscess was drawn. Edward made a swift recovery, apparently even sitting up in bed the next day smoking a cigar. The very same operating table upon which the King had lain was later marked with a metal plate with the King’s signature commemorating the event. Edward, however, had reportedly been a rather difficult patient, but ‘met his match in Sister Fletcher,’ according to the latter’s obituary in the Aberdeen Press and Journal of the 19th of May, 1933:

GAVE KING AN ORDER.

‘There has just died perhaps the only commoner in the realm who ever gave an order to King Edward and insisted on it being carried out…This was Sister Annie Fletcher, who nursed him through the appendicitis that caused the postponement of his coronation.

King Edward was not the most amenable of patients, but when it came to taking (or rather, to his thinking of not taking) his medicine, he met his match in Sister Fletcher.’

Her conduct during this difficult period of ill-health for the king resulted in her permanent appointment to the nursing staff of the Royal Household, caring not only for Edward but also for his wife Queen Alexandra and daughter Princess Victoria. Annie had been personally thanked by the King and presented with, in the words of the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser (25th November, 1905), ‘a valuable gift.’ She accompanied the family on their European travels and even stayed on the Royal Yacht, the “Victoria and Albert,” for summer cruises. It was on the latter that King Edward recuperated once he was well enough to leave hospital after his surgery.

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The Victoria and Albert Royal Yacht (‘HMY Victoria and Albert’ by the William Lind Collection is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The King and Queen never failed to remember their debt to Annie for her care and skill during Edward’s ‘Coronation’ illness, according to the Cheltenham Examiner on the 12th of May, 1910:

KING EDWARD’S NURSE

‘…It was Nurse Fletcher’s untiring devotion during King Edward’s illness previous to his Coronation that won for her the appointment of Royal Nurse. Her skill on that occasion was fully appreciated by the late King, and both he and Queen Alexandra frequently referred to the services which Nurse Fletcher rendered in the sick room during those anxious weeks in the summer of 1902.’

It also brought her attention from certain quarters, as can be seen here in the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser on the 16th of July 1902, in which the Lady Mayoress of Liverpool herself is said to be asking after Annie:

‘The Lady Mayoress of Liverpool has been making enquiries with regard to Nurse Annie Fletcher, who is nursing his Majesty the King. It is interesting to note that Nurse Fletcher entered the Hospital for Women, Shaw-Street, Liverpool, in 1889, and was trained under Miss Carless. From August, 1893, to March 1896, she was charge nurse. She has been on the staff of Miss M’Coll’s [sic] Home in London, and nurse principally for Sir Frederick Treves.’

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Queen Alexandra and Edward VII (‘Queen Alexandra and King Edward VII in Coronation Robes’ is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

In the wake of her nursing assistance to the King, she was considered of such public interest to the Nottinghamshire Evening Post that the occasion of her taking a holiday was deemed newsworthy:

‘Nurse Fletcher, one of the nurses who attended the King during his recent illness, is spending a holiday in her home at Ashton-in-Makerfield.’

Annie continued to receive this kind of recognition. In 1903, in the May edition of the magazine Girls Realm, as part of a series of articles authored by Miss Caroline Masters on ‘girls that the counties were proud of,’ a piece focused upon Lancashire, profiling the nurse. The edition itself was reviewed by the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser on the 29th of April, 1903:

Miss Fletcher, of Ashton.

‘Last of all the writer comes to the King’s nurse, Miss Annie Fletcher, whose father and family reside at Ashton, where she, too, is pleased to make her home when relaxation from duty permits. This is the reference:- “When, last June, King Edward VII was suddenly stricken down with illness, and the world paused aghast at the news, Lancashire was proud to know that one of the two nurses – Miss Annie Fletcher – chosen to nurse him had her home in its county.” A portrait is given of Miss Fletcher, as well as of Mrs. Banks, and most of the other Lancashire women whose excellences the article extols.’

In 1904, Nurse Fletcher had also taken on a role as head nurse in a newly-opened home caring for officers wounded during the South African War (Morning Post, 16th April 1904):

NURSING HOME FOR OFFICERS.

‘Miss Agnes Keyser, who, in conjunction with her sister, carried on such excellent work in Grosvenor Crescent nursing soldiers who had been wounded during the South African war, has now opened a similar home or hospital at 9, Grosvenor-gardens. By permission of his Majesty the home is to be known as King Edward VII’s Hospital for Officers, and the head nurse under Sister Agnes is Nurse Fletcher, who nursed the King in his illness two years ago.’

Annie’s work in the Royal Household was again brought to public attention following a ‘slight accident’ suffered by Edward whilst shooting at Windsor in 1905, reported by the Inverness Courier on the 21st of November, 1905:

NURSE FLETCHER. 

‘King Edward’s slight accident at Windsor brought out a fact not generally known, that for some time past there has been a trained hospital nurse in constant attendance on his Majesty’s family and Household. The lady selected for this enviable position is one of two nurses who attended the King in his “Coronation” illness after his operation, the other nurse, Miss Haine, an Irish lady, being now matron of the Convalescent Home for Officers of the King’s Services at Osborne. Miss Fletcher, who is on permanent Royal duty, travels with the Queen and Princess Victoria, the rather delicate health of the Princess being possibly the reason for this arrangement. In having a nurse always at hand in case of sudden illness or accident, the King and Queen are following the example of the late Queen Victoria, who, for some time before her death, was accompanied by a trained nurse, as a sudden summons to a hospital or home for such an attendant might have caused great anxiety to the nation.’

It is also stated in the Staffordshire Advertiser (25th November, 1905) that without Nurse Fletcher’s ‘timely attention,’ the incident may well have been far more serious.

In that same year, she also nursed Princess Victoria through appendicitis, who, like her father Edward, was plagued by such episodes of poor health. This progress report in the Nottingham Evening Post on the 2nd of February 1905 names Annie in detailing the medical staff responsible for the Princess:

‘Her Royal Highness’s nurses are Miss Fletcher, who nursed the King after his operation and Miss Isaacs, both from Miss M’Caul’s home.’

In 1909, as recognition for her steadfast service, she was awarded the Royal Red Cross in the King’s Birthday Honours, as seen here in the Daily Telegraph & Courier (London) of the 9th November in that same year:

‘The King has been graciously pleased to confer the decoration of the Royal Red Cross upon Miss Annie Fletcher, who has been a hospital nurse for twenty years, in recognition of devoted service rendered by her to his Majesty and her Majesty the Queen since 1902.’

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The Royal Red Cross (‘The Order of the Royal Red Cross and Bar’ by Robert Prummel is licensed under CC by 2.0)

The Wigan Observer and District Advertiser on the 13th of November 1909 also proudly announced the conferment of the honour upon their native resident, including the incidence of a public notation of her work in a speech given at a local school’s annual prize distribution:

KING HONOURS LOCAL NURSE.

MISS FLETCHER IN THE ROYAL BIRTHDAY LIST.

‘In the list of Birthday Honours, published on Tuesday, appears the name of Miss Annie Fletcher, of Ashton-in-Makerfield, upon whom the King has conferred the decoration of the Royal Red Cross, in recognition of devoted service rendered by her to his Majesty and the Queen since 1902. Miss Fletcher has been a nurse for the past twenty years.

PUBLIC REFERENCE AT PLATT BRIDGE.

The Chairman of the Hindley District Council, Mr. H. J. Bouchier, speaking at the annual prize distribution of St. Nathaniel’s Evening School, Platt Bridge, on Wednesday evening, said that in looking through the King’s birthday honours list, he saw the name of Annie Fletcher, who used to live not many miles from where they stood in that meeting, and he believed she went to school in that district. Miss Fletcher was one of the nurses to attend the King during his illness, and was very well thought of in the Royal Family. She had no more chances than the girls present that evening, possibly not as good, but by her own endeavours and ambition she had gone up from once place to another until she stood as high as any nurse in England could wish. (Applause). The girls present, he said, must not be disappointed if they could not become great nurses like Miss Fletcher, but they could all at any rate make the best of their opportunities. If they did not get to anything great they would be better men and women for having improved themselves. (Applause).’

King Edward VII was plagued by poor health. In March 1910, he contracted a chill whilst staying at Biarritz, and Annie was telegraphed for, immediately departing for the Continent. Her nursing skills were significant in his recovery, according to a report on Edward’s final year in the British Medical Journal of the 14th May:

‘On his way through France he caught a fresh chill, and during the early days of his stay at Biarritz his condition caused some anxiety. The skill of his physician and the care of his nurse, combined with the favourable influence of the climate, enabled him to shake off the enemy for a time.’

In April, the King fell seriously ill and Annie was immediately summoned to his bedside as someone who ‘understood his Majesty’s constitution probably better than any of his medical attendants’ (Wigan Observer and District Advertiser, 14th May, 1910):

NURSE FLETCHER AND THE KING’S ILLNESS.

‘Nurse Fletcher, of Bryn, who nursed the King through his previous illness was summoned to Buckingham Palace on Tuesday morning, last week, not Monday as previously stated. After being in attendance on his Majesty at Biarritz, Nurse Fletcher was taking a short holiday with her family in Bryn when she was summoned to the Palace. The first telegram was received at 7.23 on Tuesday morning: a second following an hour later at 8.25 and Nurse Fletcher left at 11.32 taking first available train to London.

The nurse summoned to his Majesty’s bedside was Miss Fletcher, who cared for him after the operation he underwent in the year of his accession and she was also at Biarritz during his first attack of bronchitis early in March. She is a[n]… expert in whom all the doctors attending the king have the most implicit reliance. Her Majesty also had the utmost confidence in Miss Fletcher, who, a contemporary states, understood his Majesty’s constitution probably better than any of his medical attendants.’

Despite Annie’s and the Royal Physicians’ best efforts, King Edward VII passed away at 11:30pm on the 28th April, having suffered a series of heart attacks.

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The Funeral Procession of King Edward VII passing along Piccadilly (The Herald, 28th May, 1910)

Amidst the widespread newspaper coverage of the event, Annie herself was the recipient of a sizeable biography, again in the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser (14th May, 1910), demonstrating her status as a prominent figure among her local community in Wigan. I reproduce the account here in full as a manifestation of regional pride, even amongst so much national mourning:

KING EDWARD’S NURSE.

MISS ANNIE FLETCHER, R.R.C.,

OF WIGAN.

‘On page 3 will be found a portrait of Miss Annie Fletcher, King Edward’s nurse during his illness, wearing the decoration conferred upon her by the late King. Nurse Fletcher, who has had the great honour of occupying the distinguished position of Royal nurse ever since King Edward came to the throne is, it is interesting to note, a native of Wigan, having been born in the Gidlow district [sic]. Some twenty years ago her parents removed to Brynn, and took up residence in Wigan-road, her father being an under-manager under the Garswood Hall Colliery Company.

Nurse Fletcher’s career reflects the greatest credit not only on herself but on the profession to which she belongs. At first the was associated for several years with the Hospital for Women in Shaw-street, Liverpool, and before joining the staff of the nursing home under Miss Ethel M’Caul, R.R.C., she held other nursing appointments, among these being that of matron of a small hospital. She had so perfected her training in the profession she adopted that she was able to become associated with the King Edward Hospital, Grosvenor Gardens, London, with which the Royal physicians were identified, and in this way she became the King’s nurse.

It was shortly before the date fixed for the King’s Coronation when his Majesty was seized with a sudden illness, and the operation for appendicitis was so skilfully performed that Nurse Fletcher was brought into close nursing association with Royalty. She was then placed by Sir Frederick Treves as second nurse to the King, and so greatly were her services appreciated that she was later taken into the Royal household as a permanent nurse. In this way was her skill and devotion recognised. When the King journeyed to Biarritz on his last visit, it was Nurse Fletcher who was chosen to be in attendance upon his Majesty, and when the King returned to London she was granted a week’s holiday, when she came on a visit to her relatives and friends in the Wigan district.

Miss Fletcher’s mother is dead, and it was while taking this holiday, staying with her father at Brynn, that the telegram asking her to return to Buckingham Palace was received. This was on Tuesday morning, and Nurse Fletcher made all haste, taking the first available train to London, and she was in constant attendance in the Royal apartments until the King passed away.

Nurse Fletcher’s services, it is interesting to note, have received Royal recognition. She was honoured with the Order of the Red Cross in King Edward’s birthday list last year, and she has received many presents, most of which bear touching inscriptions, from various members of the Royal Family. When she was chosen as a Royal nurse her appointment at Court was duly gazetted.’

As noted above, Annie’s father and family had later returned to the Wigan area from Flintshire, settling in Brynn. In 1901 they were living at 343 Wigan Road with William taking up the position of Under-Manager (Below Ground) at the Garswood Hall Colliery Company. Annie’s mother had by this time died and William was living with his three sons, all of whom were employed in the business of coal – Robert, 28, as a Hewer, Thomas, 21, as a Colliery Wagon Shunter (Above Ground) and Harry, 19, also as a Hewer. The family’s increased wealth and status, as well as the loss of Sarah, had also brought about the employment of a domestic housekeeper. In 1911, William had retired and was living with his son Robert, a coal salesman, and the latter’s wife Hannah. The couple had three children, one of whom was named Annie. It is not inconceivable to surmise that, following Annie’s newfound fame for her part in attending to Edward on his deathbed, her brother wished to honour his sister with this familial gesture, perpetuating her memory through this expression of pride and satisfaction at her achievement. Annie herself had never married and remained childless, meaning that such a move must have been especially meaningful to her.

The local zeal generated by these connections had led not only the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser (as seen above), but also a number of other publications to falsely attribute Annie’s birthplace to Wigan, a state of affairs corrected by a letter to the editor of the Yorkshire Post on the 13th of May 1910:

THE KING’S NURSE.

TO THE EDITOR OF THE YORKSHIRE POST.

Sir, ‘ The other day there appeared in one of the Wigan newspapers an account of the life of Nurse Fletcher, who was in attendance upon our late King during his last illness. This paragraph stated that Nurse Fletcher was born at Wigan. Her friends at Beeston wish me to state that she was born at Crow Nest Lane, Beeston, and is descended from an old Beeston family. Your readers may be interested to know that Leeds has the honour of being the birthplace of the nurse that has been so much valued by our Royal Family in their sickness – Yours, etc.,

W.L.INGLE.

Millshaw, May 12.

 In a later report published in the British Medical Journal and referred to above (May 14th, 1910), Annie Fletcher is singled out as being instrumental in Edward’s care, in company with the King’s Physicians:

‘The King was attended throughout by his Physicians-in-Ordinary (Sir Francis Laking, Sir James Reid, and Sir Douglas Powell), and by one of his Physicians Extraordinary (Dr. Bertrand Dawson). Dr. St. Clair Thomson being called in consultation some time ago, his Majesty underwent a course of vaccine treatment at the hands of Dr. Spitta, bacteriologist at St. George’s Hospital. All the resources of modern science were used in the last illness. He was nursed by Miss Fletcher, whose ministrations he had learned to appreciate at the time of the operation performed upon him by Sir Frederick Treves.’

Throughout the nation, Nurse Fletcher was cited in a great number of regional newspapers, thanking her for her attendance upon Edward prior to his death, as seen here in the Clifton Society on the 12th of May, 1910, a Bristol publication:

THE ROYAL NURSE.

‘Many kindly thoughts, will, says The Globe, be turned to Miss Fletcher, who nursed King Edward through that illness which fell with such dramatic suddenness on the eve of his Coronation, and who brought all her skill and tenderness to the Royal bedside in the last and fatal hours. Miss Fletcher had become a part of the Royal household, respected and honoured by all who have been associated with her. Her exalted patient had the greatest regard for Nurse Fletcher, and not long ago bestowed upon her the decoration of the Royal Cross.’

In 1912, on the two year anniversary of the King’s death, Annie was even invited to a private service attended by members of the Royal Family in the Albert Memorial Chapel, Windsor, to celebrate Edward’s life.

Indeed, Annie had remained close to the family. After Edward’s passing, she had continued as nurse for Queen Alexandra until the latter passed away in 1925. The following image from The Sphere on the 5th of December in that same year depicts the deathbed scene shortly after the Queen had passed away. Nurse Fletcher had been in constant attendance on her since her ill-health had forced her to retire to Sandringham House. Annie is shown at her bedside in the right-hand corner of the illustration, tentatively drawing the curtain back.

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Annie subsequently retired to Lancashire, a lifetime’s dedicated service behind her. She took up residence in Heeley Road in the seaside resort of St. Anne’s on Sea, in a house whose name consisted of a royal acronym expressing her great love of this family to whom she had given so many years of her life – “Vedal” (V for Victoria, ED for Edward and AL for Alexandra).

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Lytham St. Anne’s and its Promenade (‘The Promenade at Lytham St. Anne’s’ by Raymond Knapman is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

She remained close with the Royal Family, as is noted in her obituary printed in the Manchester Guardian on the 15th of May 1933, with Princess Victoria even reported to have stayed with her on a number of occasions:

A ROYAL HOUSEHOLD NURSE

‘Miss Fletcher nursed the late King Edward when he had appendicitis. She remained with the royal family and nursed Queen Alexandra up to the time of her death, when Nurse Fletcher retired as nurse from the royal household. She was awarded the Order of the Red Cross in 1910 [sic]. Princess Victoria, who frequently visited her at St. Anne’s, has telegraphed her sympathy with the family.’

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Princess Victoria (‘Princess Victoria of the United Kingdom, daughter of Edward VII’ by W. & D. Downey is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

These visits of Princess Victoria to the nurse were later recalled the former had passed away, detailed here in the Lancashire Evening Post on the 3rd of December, 1935, two years after Annie herself had passed away:

TO SEE OLD NURSE.

Princess Victoria’s Visit to Fylde Recalled

‘The death of Princess Victoria (as reported on page 3) recalls visits which Her Royal Highness paid some years ago to Lytham St. Annes, when, as an incognito visitor she stayed with a former nurse of the Royal Family in Heeley-road.

Princess Victoria at that time stayed with Nurse Fletcher , who had been a servant of the Royal Household practically all her life. While staying there Princess Victoria planted a small beech tree and inscribed certain markings on a window of the house as souvenirs of her visit.

The beech tree remains, but the window was removed by relatives of Nurse Fletcher when she died about two years ago.

It is also understood that while on visits to the Fylde Princess Victoria visited relations of Nurse Fletcher living at a house in North Shore, Blackpool. Few people, however, were aware of her visit there on account of the strict secrecy which was maintained.

Mr. H. Mosscrop, a newsagent, of Headroomgate-road, St. Anne’s, speaking to our reporter to-day, recalled Princess Victoria’s visit to the town. “She was often seen walking around here, and frequently came into the shop,” he said, “but it was not until later that we realised who our distinguished visitor was.”‘

Annie herself had been taken ill with pneumonia in 1933, whilst staying with her sister Mary in Peacefield, Marple. She passed away at the age of 68 on the 13th of May and was buried in the churchyard at All Saints on the 16th of that same month.

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All Saints Churchyard, Marple – Image by A Grave Announcement

Upon death, she left a considerable estate amounting to around £100,000 in today’s money, according to the Dundee Evening Telegraph on the 5th of September 1933:

‘Nurse to King Edward, Miss Annie Fletcher, of Heeley Road, Lytham St Anne’s, left £1968.’

In addition to this monetary sum, she also bestowed a watch given to her by King Edward VII  upon her nephew, as reported in the Lancashire Evening Post on the 4th of September 1933:

ROYAL NURSE’S WILL

Watch Presented by King Edward to Lytham Woman

‘Miss Annie Fletcher, R.R.C.O., Vedal, 150 Heeley Road, Lytham St. Annes, for many years a nurse in the Royal household and nurse to King Edward VII, when he was operated upon for appendicitis and during his last illness, and who died on May 13th last, aged 69 [sic] years, left estate of the gross value of £1,968, with her personalty £1,921.

She left to her nephew, the Rev. Harry Fletcher, the gold watch presented to her by his late Majesty, King Edward VII; and one year’s wages to her maid, Harriet Mainwaring, if in service at her death.’

This timepiece was one of a number of gifts presented to Annie by the Royal Family, the rest of which were sold at Bonhams in 2003.

Nurse Fletcher’s death had been reported in a wide variety of regional newspapers, from Scotland to Southern England, signalling the continuing interest in the nurse whose name, at the height of her fame, was known throughout the nation. Ultimately, her life stands as a remarkable exercise in  social mobility as coal-miner’s daughter rose to become Royal Nurse to King Edward VII, an extraordinary achievement for an extraordinary woman, and a fitting voice for 2018’s celebratory year of Extraordinary Women.

A Grave Announcement (@AGraveAnnounce)

With thanks to the profile of Annie Fletcher’s life by the Marple Local History Society for  additional background information.