“He Lived Alone for Six Long and Weary Years”

Employed as a research assistant for the summer, much of my time was spent in the Salvation Army Heritage Centre in Denmark Hill searching through late Victorian and Edwardian copies of The War Cry. For those of you who follow me on twitter, you will have seen the range of items reported upon in this rather abundant resource – from cookery tips to illustrations of slum life. One regular feature that caught my attention was “Cellar, Gutter, and Garrett,” reporting on the work done by the Salvation Army in London’s poorest districts. The particular article I want to discuss in today’s post, is one reported in April 1885 which tells the tale of a ‘widower, seventy-six years of age, feeble and sick’ who ‘lived alone for six long and weary years…in a barely furnished and dirty room in Seven Dials’.

To reach him we had to climb some winding, creaking stairs, then, opening the door, we found him in his usual position before the fire–a scanty one its true. He had sat there for six years–cannot go to bed or lie down, because of his breathing; he was very thin, and as the clothes were still thinner, and in some places worn away, we could see how the bones stood prominently out, he had no shoes or stockings on, his feet rested on the cold hearth–he had on his head a hat, or rather the rim of one, the crown having been burnt out, by it accidentally falling onto the fire as he slept.

His health further declining, however, he was ‘induced’ to lie down on the bed, soon thereafter passing away peacefully.

Yet, despite the inference of a lonely death in the article’s subheading, as we go further into the story it reveals that in his final days he was tended to by the Salvation Army “lasses.”

On Saturday morning the lasses visited and washed him, tidied his room, talked and prayed with him…

Moreover, his daughter, ‘who occupied the floor beneath’ and was ‘equally poor, with a large family’, would bring him ‘a little food’. When her father’s health rapidly declined, it was she who called for the doctor.

We knelt and prayed in the darkened room beside the corpse and his daughter (the mother of three little children) promised God and us to meet him in Heaven.

This particular article resonated with me because of its similarity to a number of coroners’ inquests I came across during my PhD research relating to elderly widowers residing alone, who were–from the evidence given–far from alone. Despite living alone, these elderly widowed men frequently had around them support networks that they could rely upon both day-to-day and in times of crisis. The most predominant of these were female family members—daughters, sisters, and even mother-in-laws. Such networks, often untraceable in the census due to differing surnames, are opened up by the Victorian coroner’s courts. At one Ipswich inquest held in 1896 on the body of widower, Henry Peck, who had died as a result of a fall, the court recorded that it was his sister, ‘Tamar Balaam’, residing on a neighbouring street, who had noticed that her brother’s ‘shutters…were closed beyond the usual hour’ and, being concerned, had her husband break down the door. The Ipswich Journal reporting on the inquest peculiarly decided on the tagline of ‘A Lonely Man’s End’, but like the case reported in The War Cry, it is evident that while these widowed men were living alone they were not necessarily ‘lonely’ men.

Sources:

The War Cry, 1 April 1885, 4.

The War Cry, 18 April 1885, 4.

Ipswich Journal, 6 June 1896.

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“Darby and Joan” – Bereavement, Lodgings, and Press Subscriptions.

Over the past few years I have been using coroners’ inquests, both the original records and the newspaper reports, to explore domestic life and domestic accidents in Victorian England. One thing that really stood out to me in the course of my research was the extent to which these inquests opened up the lives of the elderly at this time. Coinciding with my new research, this new blog intends to explore the domestic arrangements of the elderly living in England’s cities, provincial towns, and rural areas during the nineteenth century. In the next few posts, I plan to explore the domestic lives of those elderly living in lodgings – both lodging-houses and other people’s homes.

However, I am going to begin this blog with one particular inquest I recently uncovered in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper and was reported in numerous other London and provincial newspapers, a case I refer to as “Darby and Joan,” which tells the extraordinary tale of one elderly widow whose security in “comfortable” lodgings was provided by the substantial donations raised after the sudden death of her husband – although, this is far from a happy tale.

In October 1887, various London and provincial newspapers reported on the death of William Cox, a 77 year old artist’s model residing at 25 Elgin Terrace, Maida Vale, London. William, who had been out at sittings all day, was returning home to Elgin Terrace on a Kilburn omnibus:

Henry Gillows, conductor, said the Cox got into his omnibus at Regent-circus at ten o’clock on Monday night. Going along Maida-vale [Gillows] asked for his fare. Cox did not answer, but he seemed to be asleep, leaning on his stick. On arriving at Kilburn he was found to be dead.”[1]

His body was removed to Hampstead Mortuary, where his wife, Margaret (also an artist’s model “who sat with him for the picture of ‘Darby and Joan’ in [the 1887] Academy”), who had been “wait[ing] up for him,” identified his body.[2]

The news of his death soon spread throughout London society and at the inquest into Cox’s death, where the cause of death was determined as heart failure, the coroner:

Dr. Danford Thomas announced that the facts of the case had come to the knowledge of Mr. John Aird, M.P. [and a known art collector], who had sent him a cheque for £5 5s. to relieve the widow.”[3]

After her husband’s death and with this financial support, Margaret Cox took up lodgings down the street with the Parry family and, Reynold’s Newspaper states, was “in the receipt of 25s. per week. A subscription had been raised for her, and the money was given to her in weekly instalments.”[4] In spite of the financial support, “which enabled [her] to live comfortably”, the newspapers states, Margaret Cox had become “depressed because of the death of her husband” –“it was a case of Joan lamenting Darby” – and the following June committed suicide by overdosing on opium.[5] Her landlord, Samuel Parry, stated at the inquest into her death that, “Mrs. Cox had given way to excessive drinking. When not sober she was abusive, and he had served her notice to quit.”[6]

Reflecting on this particular case, one wonders had it not been for the press interest and the subscription raised as a result, whether Margaret, having “given way to excessive drinking” and lacking the safety net of family (her stepson, Reynold’s Newspaper states, was estranged from her), would have soon fallen down the ranks of London society and ended up at the doors of the workhouse soon after the death of her beloved “Darby.”

[1] The Morning Post, October 28, 1887.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Reynold’s Newspaper, July 1, 1888.

[5] Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, July 1, 1888.

[6] Ibid.

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