Annie Macpherson & The Gutter Children
Introducing her talk at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green tomorrow night, Contributing Writer Sarah Wise (author of The Blackest Streets) considers the work of one of the East End’s less-known Victorian philanthropists, Annie Macpherson. Click here to book a ticket.
Spitalfields Nipper by Horace Warner
In 1866, London’s fourth and final major cholera epidemic arrived, killing five and a half thousand Londoners. Out of that public health disaster emerged three hugely influential East London charitable bodies – the Salvation Army, Dr Barnardo’s, and the less-renowned Annie Macpherson Home of Industry. Miss Macpherson was an evangelical Scottish Presbyterian who set up a large-scale programme of shipping London’s orphans and street children across the Atlantic for new lives in Canada.
Born in 1833, Miss Macpherson arrived in London in 1862 and joined a loose-knit group of wealthy evangelicals involved in assisting the destitute. In February 1869, she rented a warehouse at 60 Commercial St in Spitalfields which had formerly been put to use as a cholera ‘hospital’ by the Sisters of Mercy, the Church of England sisterhood. She called her refuge for children ‘The Bee Hive’ (later also referring to it as ‘The Home of Industry’). The building is still there, on the southern corner of Commercial St and Flower & Dean St.
Miss Macpherson found herself on the edge of one of the most deprived pockets of the East End – she estimated that four people each week starved to death in the surrounding streets and official figures confirm her estimate. In 1869, 154,000 Londoners were reliant on parish ‘welfare’ relief (out of a population of 3.9 million), but many thousands never came forward for help. Estimates of London children living rough are as high as 30,000, and one such individual, Maggie Fritz, aged twelve, arrived at The Bee Hive one night close to midnight. She was brought in by a girl even younger who could not bear to see homeless Maggie sleeping night after night on a doorstep. The final straw had been witnessing other homeless girls kicking Maggie so they could take the doorstep to sleep on. Maggie was freezing, wet and hungry, with a filthy tear-stained face and matted hair. Miss Macpherson took her in and trained her to become a housemaid.
Elsewhere in her notes, Miss Macpherson refers to a boy she took in named Hugh, whose widowed mother had three other children, another on the way, an aged mother and a learning disabled eighteen-year-old-sister, all to provide for from her pitiful wages as a cigar-maker.
Another lad, named ‘Punch’, about ten, was discovered one night by Miss Macpherson, asleep in a barrel at Billingsgate Market alongside his dog, Little Dosser. Punch made a living of sorts by doing acrobatic tricks and ventriloquism in East End gin palaces.
Annie Macpherson’s approach to charity was to offer food, shelter and some kind of industrial or domestic training to children – initially boys, but later also girls, wives and mothers. Among the skills for which she offered training at The Bee Hive were tailoring and shoe-mending for the boys, and sewing and domestic service for girls and women. On Sundays, after the children had a breakfast of bread and treacle and a mug of coffee, Miss Macpherson would lead them up Commercial St and under the Wheler St arch to the animal and bird fair at Club Row, where they played the harmonium and sang rousing hymns. Over the next thirty years, Macpherson and her Bee Hive boys and girls became a noted feature of this part of the Bethnal Green Rd.
For Annie Macpherson, Satan was no mere figure of speech – in her eyes, the Devil literally haunted slum areas, and the exploitation and human misery that she witnessed were His work. These were districts, she wrote ‘where Satan reigns openly, in which ‘the subtle deceiver’ would continually put obstacles in her way — which was the way of the Lord. Spitalfields, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green were, in Annie’s words, ‘the Enemy’s territory.’
Years of personal observation of the malfunctioning labour market and the appalling housing shortage prompted her to write ‘God is watching the grasping capitalists and the oppressors of the poor, the grinding taskmasters who cannot wring another farthing out of the toilers.’ Yet, in her view, politics was not the arena in which social evil should be fought. Instead, evangelical revivalists regarded such mass poverty as the forerunner to the Apocalypse. As Scripture foretold, the world had to be in ruins before the Messiah returns to establish His kingdom. These things were divinely ordained and, though the alleviation of human suffering was a Christian’s purpose, it was only divine power that could right all wrongs and mete out appropriate punishments.
Miss Macpherson was a believer in the controversial practice of emigrationism — transporting of poor British children to far-flung imperial colonies for re-settlement. Such schemes were tried earlier in the century but abandoned, largely because of worries about potential labour shortages in Britain, but also because of the risks of abuse and neglect for unsupervised youngsters sent halfway around the globe. However, the cholera crisis of 1866, together with a run of bad harvests, bitter winters and a recession saw the government change its mind. A number of charitable bodies were permitted to send both workhouse and street children abroad to work — unpaid — as either farm labourers or domestic servants. By the time of her death in 1904, Annie Macpherson had exported over 12,000 London children to Canada.
By 1874, worrying reports began to appear in the Canadian press about English street children who had run away or been dismissed by their employers, and who were to be found living rough, engaged in petty crime or even in jail.
The government sent over an inspector in 1875. He was horrified by the lack of follow-up inspection on the part of Miss Macpherson and other emigrating agencies. Without questioning Miss Macpherson’s integrity, the inspector criticised her scheme, among others, for its naïve trust in human nature, placing children with scarcely-vetted Canadian families. The children’s lives, he wrote, were ‘hard and lonely… the little emigrants have been set afloat, and too many of them left to paddle their own canoes.’
Artist and illustrator George Cruikshank was another, early, critic of child emigration. In his pamphlet, ‘Our Gutter Children’, he declared the ‘transportation of innocent…children a disgrace to the Christian world.’ His illustration showed small infants being shovelled up out of the London gutter and into a cart, for export, ‘like so much guano, or like so many cattle for a foreign market.’
Annie Macpherson accepted the criticisms and made all the improvements suggested. But attacks on child emigration started from another source – the various left-wing or ‘progressive’ voices that grew louder from the eighteen-eighties onwards. Why should poverty be a reason for a child to be exiled from its country of birth? Why should a child do ‘slave’ work for no pay except their board and lodging? One anarchist collective, based in Boundary St, Shoreditch, printed a pamphlet entitled ‘Are We Overpopulated?’, which called for the forced emigration of the idle rich only, since they – rather than the poor – were a parasitical drain on the resources of Britain.
In the late eighteen-eighties, Miss Macpherson moved The Bee Hive north to the corner of Club Row and Bethnal Green Rd, on the edge of the Old Nichol slum. By now, she was attracting over five hundred people to her regular Gospel evenings — astonishing in an area in which many parish churches struggled to match such attendance levels. Yet, upon her death, Annie Macpherson’s work was taken over by Dr Barnardo’s charity and her name simply slipped into history.
Annie Macpherson (1833-1904)
Annie Macpherson’s first Home of Industry at 60 C0mmercial St
Annie Macpherson’s second Home of Industry at 29 Bethnal Green Rd
George Cruickshank published ‘Our Gutter Children’ in 1869 (Click image to enlarge)
Spitalfields Nipper by Horace Warner
Sarah Wise’s lecture ‘A Disgrace to the Christian World?’ is at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green on Thursday 26th November at 7pm. Click here to book a ticket.
You may also like to read another story by Sarah Wise