Unusually for a Victorian, she could neither read nor write because her mother, a washerwoman, kept her off school to help with the laundry. Clothes were boiled in a copper in the back yard (not an American yard but a narrow strip of concrete hemmed in by high brick walls). As a child her job was to work the mangle and keep the fire stoked. Quite a lot of her time was spent looking for fuel. 'Tarry blocks' were best. Many of London's roads were paved with blocks of wood weather-proofed with tar. When they were dug up to repair the road, children gathered from miles around to take them home. In the evening, she sold walnuts in the pubs of Camden Town, most of them are still there, not changed too much.

"A narrow strip of concrete hemmed in by high brick walls" — Over the city by railway by Gustave Doré from London: A Pilgrimage. 1872. Click on thumbnail for larger image.

If, when adult, she earned twelve and six a week, eight shillings might go on rent for a couple of rooms. But she said she remembered Jack the Ripper and how she was too scared to go out at night. She claimed to have eaten pies baked by Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. The Relief of Mafeking during the Boer War was a living memory to her; she remembered the costermongers singing and the crowds celebrating noisily in The Strand and Trafalgar Square. (Mafeking briefly became a verb — to maffick: to rejoice publicly.) She remembered how she and her friend had laughed when rain, one Bank Holiday on Hampstead Heath, had turned the long feathers in their hats into herring bones. To her they really were the Good Old Days.

For a few weeks in summer when she was still young and unmarried she sometimes went hopping — picking hops (which give English beer its bitter taste) in the hopfields of Kent. A shilling a bushel, sometimes, though out of that you bought and cooked your own food and paid rent for a very rough bed in a shed of some kind. Still, it was the Cockney holiday and whole families used to go together.

Her grandfather was a costermonger who sold fruit and fish (an odd combination even then) from a stall at the bottom of Hampstead Road. Early every morning he went with his pony and cart to Billingsgate (for fish) or Covent Garden (for fruit) to sell that day on the stall. At night, if he had money, he got drunk in the pubs of Camden Town, his pony waiting patiently outside to take him home on the bed of the cart. Well, perhaps not home — to her stable in a tumbledown mews where, however drunk he was, he unharnessed and fed her. Grooming was left for a another day.

Her brother was nicknamed Toe because he'd lost one in the Army in some Victorian outpost of empire long ago. Back in Blighty he seemed to give up on himself and he ended his days begging in the streets for money for drink.

Her husband had been a carter, though she was widowed early and had to raise her daughter on her own, in a single room, by working literally day and night. She cleaned middle-class houses, washed other people's clothes, and even washed bottles in a lemonade factory.

The house she lived in was shaky (it's since been demolished) from bomb damage in the Blitz. In the 1930s the house was bought by an Italian who was, of course, later interned as an enemy alien. He gave her fifty pounds to keep for him until the war was over. Fifty pounds was nearly a year's wages but she kept it safe until the day she died, though he never came back, presumably having died somewhere along the line.

When I met her she was very old — well into her nineties — and bowed double with osteoporosis or widow's stoop as it was called. But she was unbreakable and fearless. She still lived in a single room, with a war damaged, sagging floor, still lit only by gaslight. She died as she lived without complaint or self-pity, asking for nothing but accepting with grace whatever was given her. She has no grave. Her name was Ann Newbery.


Victorian work

Last modified 22 May 2006