52 Ancestors: Outcast

I had written half a blog for last week’s prompt (Social Media) but hadn’t got around to finishing it before this week’s prompt came around. Sorry about it. Now on to this week’s writing!

Outcasts. My immediate thought was to look at social outcasts: the undesirables. Hobos. Vagrants. Tramps. Vagabonds. The demonisation of the poor is nothing new, and something that is still prevalent in society today. In fact, in the UK, the first piece of legislation making it a crime to be unemployed (known as idleness) dates to 1349.  A vagrant was a person who could work but chose not to and, having no fixed abode or lawful occupation, begged. Vagrancy was punishable by being branded or whipped.

I’m pretty sure that if this was suggested today that a surprising (or not so surprising??) subset of the population wouldn’t have a problem with it.

But this isn’t a review of the various Vagrancy or Poor Laws (some of which still remain in place and enforceable in the UK today: in 2020 573 people were prosecuted under the 1824 Vagrancy Act) otherwise I’d be here all day and get quite cross.

Having no (known) outcasts or vagrants in my tree, I thought I’d take a look at some newspapers to see what I could find from my local area …

I was struck by the following article from 1896.

Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle – Saturday 24 October 1896

“Tramping the country” and “carrying a baby” are not facts that you readily see placed together. I can’t even imagine. I thought I’d take a look at George and Kate and see what I could find. Oh boy…

Bizarrely, one of the first records I found was of their marriage.

It took place the January following their conviction and took place in the parish church in Southbroom (now subsumed within Devizes, Southbroom used to be its own parish/perpetual curacy). George’s residence of St John’s Baptist, Devizes, and Kate’s of “this parish” is perhaps worthy of note as the vast majority of marriages give a street address if they are local – although a sizable portion do just give the name of the village or parish name (and one bride whose residence is given as “County Asylum” but she turned out to be an asylum attendant and not a patient!). One of the witnesses – Caroline Barnwell – was the wife of the vicar, Charles E. B. Barnwell.

We are also treated to George’s trend of being … economic with the truth. His age in the article and on the marriage certificate point to a year of birth of around 1870 – but there are no George Charles Widdicombes born around this time. There is one born in Poplar in 1863, however.

Widdicombe Baptisms from 1869: All Saints, Poplar

George’s parents – George Thomas Widdicombe and Eliza Sparks Pearce were both originally from Topsham in Devon and had married in St Thomas, Exeter in 1858. However, their eldest son – William Henry Pearce Widdicombe – was born in Poplar in 1860. Topsham had a thriving fishing and shipbuilding industry for many centuries (the port itself dates back to the Romans) but it was the introduction of iron steamships that was the death knell for Topsham. Prior to this, in the 1850s, one particular yard employed over 200 men and at least 80 apprentices. Perhaps George Senior saw which way the tide was turning (get it?!) and joined the mass influx of labour in the East End docks of London to continue his work as a shipwright.

George Junior grew up as one of six children, and both he and his brother William found work at sea. In 1881, George is aboard the Lady of Avenel as an Ordinary Seaman.

Lady of Avenel

The Lady was a brigantine (a two-masted sailing ship with a fully square-rigged foremast and at least two sails on the main mast: a square topsail and a gaff sail mainsail (behind the mast), where the main mast is the second and taller of the two masts) and was originally built in Falmouth, Cornwall in 1874. She was predominantly used as a freighter transporting Cornish granite, Canadian saltfish and various other freight items around Europe.

Lady of Avenal, 1874-1938

She also did two scientific journeys into the Arctic towards the end of her life, and it was also a training school for boys (replaced by the Cutty Sark). Sadly, she was abandoned in a corner of Poole harbour for many years until – no longer seaworthy and deemed a danger to shipping – she was towed out to sea and set on fire in 1938. However, George had parted company with the ship long before then!

George and Kate appear in many records together, the vast majority of them being admitted to or discharged from various London-based workhouses, along with Removal Orders stating that George, his wife Kate and her two children (one illegitimate) belong to Poplar. For example, in June 1899 the family was receiving parish relief in Mile End Old Town, but it was determined that the family had previously been settled in Poplar (the order states George’s parentage and that they had lived at 22 Bloomfield Street, Poplar for 3 years prior to 1880) and it is to that parish that they must apply for relief. Westminster and Holborn also feature repeatedly.

The family appear again in both March and December 1900 (a pregnant Kate is being removed from St Olave to Poplar, and states that George is absent from her), and then in December 1902 when George and his son, Frederick, discharge themselves at their own request from the Mile End Workhouse. The family is strangely absent from the 1891 census, but in 1901 George is a prisoner at Wormwood Scrubs prison. He had been tried in October 1900 at the Old Bailey and found guilty of larceny and warehouse breaking. He was sentenced to 12 months hard labour.

Kate and George had had one son in February 1899 – George Charles. In 1901 Kate is an inmate at Newington Workhouse in Southwark, and it is here on 9 May 1901 that George Thomas is born. The pair were discharged “to husband” in August 1901. There is no sign of George Charles junior – but the repetition of the George implies that he may have died before this point (pointing to a potential death in Islington in early 1900). There is also no sign of Kate’s eldest child, named on removal orders as Frederick Charles White. In 1899 he was discharged from the Greenwich Workhouse. He does appear in August 1902 on the admission register of Marlesford Lodge in Hammersmith.

This was an “intermediate” school for children, whose parents were either in custody or who were sick, Frederick’s entry lists his father as in prison and his mother as in the workhouse. He was discharged from here in January 1903. By July 1903 he was discharged from the Holborn workhouse. In 1911 he appears as an inmate of the Poplar Training School in Brentwood, Essex. The aim of the school – which housed around 700 children – was to provide training to children to help them “rise above” pauperism in later life, and had been set up by George Lansbury – the grandfather of actress Angela Lansbury.

Frederick disappears from the records here. Kate died in 1904 in Poplar. George Thomas died in St Pancras workhouse in 1902. George Charles seems to have continued his life in and out of the workhouse until at least 1926 where he appears for the last time being discharged from the Stepney workhouse in January.

However, it is not the last time that we see George. I believe that he dies in the Royal Park Hospital for Mental Hygiene in Melbourne, Australia in May 1948. I can find him on no passenger list, nor on any other death entry for the UK. He doesn’t leap out of the 1921 census, nor the 1939 Register. In 1911 he may be an inmate of the London County Asylum in Dartford.

I was surprised at the information available for George and Kate. I don’t know why he left his ship, or what happened to stop him returning to sea and set his life in that direction. (There is the possibility that he arrived in New Zealand in the 1880s and made a nuisance of himself there by joining up with the Skeleton Army – a mob that was violently against the Salvation Army – but I can’t prove that the George Widdicombe that appears in police records there is this George Widdicombe.) Although his father died when he was fairly young, his brother and his sisters all found suitable marriages and/or careers. You never know what you’re going to find, however, even picking on an article about “tramps”.

This is also my last blog before travelling to Utah for Roots Tech next week. Expect a few posts from me with my reviews and updates.

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