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Annie Macpherson & The Gutter Children

November 25, 2015
by Sarah Wise

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

The Ancient Arches of Bishopsgate Goodsyard

10 Responses leave one →
  1. November 25, 2015

    A very sobering story today. Valerie

  2. Gary Horton permalink
    November 25, 2015

    History is rather repeating given the 1860′s appalling living conditions are still being experienced by huge numbers of modern day London’s population today. I am referencing a new reliance on foodbanks which your article today indicates. The living wage earned by most people is woefully inadequate in balancing income to outgoing hence the resurgence of the foodbanks. Today’s article was very informative which I must say, is a refreshing change to any other sites available! Thanks.

  3. Peter Holford permalink
    November 25, 2015

    Excellent piece and one which makes me wonder if we have learned all the lessons. I’m not sure that forcing people who are poor to re-house miles away from London and their social networks is much different to ‘exiling children from the country of their birth because of poverty’. Shame on those politicians who are still making this happen 150 years later.

  4. Bronchitikat permalink
    November 25, 2015

    Thanks for this article. As with other commentors I couldn’t help but view this in parallel with what is happening today. Will the Chancellor’s Statement do anything to help the poor and the working poor? One can only hope and pray.

  5. November 25, 2015

    Semi-speechless. Endorse Gary and Valerie’s comments.
    (Riveting Cruikshank image…)

  6. November 25, 2015

    You might be interested in my biography of Maria Rye, who had a very similar career to Annie MacPherson – evangelical, started taking ‘gutter children’ to Canada in 1869, faced investigation by the Canadian House of Commons in the mid-1870s but survived the scandal, and continued to send ‘home children’ until her death in 1904. I have always assumed she was one of the women in the Cruikshank cartoon and Annie was the other – though I don’t know which was which. The one differenc is that Maria only took little girls, while Annie and the other emigration agents took both boys and girls.

    The book is Marion Diamond, Emigration and Empire: The Life of Maria S Rye (1999).

  7. Susan Brazeau permalink
    December 13, 2015

    Amongst those of us who do research on the children who came to Canada through these various benevolent organizations in Great Britain, the names of Annie MacPherson, Maria Rye, and Dr. Barnardo, amongst others, are very well known. Called British Home Children (BHC), the 100,000 or so who came to Canada have an estimated four million descendants in this country. Most of these descendants have no knowledge of their BHC ancestry; however, articles, such as yours, and the efforts being carried out by the various research groups in Canada, help to educate others of this little known, but critical era in Canadian and British history. Thanks so much for your article.

  8. Joan Bance permalink
    December 15, 2015

    My Father was a home boy sent to Canada in 1929-he was not given a choice at the age of 14 years. He hated the term”gutter children”. He had a hard life in those years and surprisingly he did not appear too bitter about it. I was sad for him and it has always been a strong focus of mine. The children who came to Canada had it hard-he did. He knew nothing of farming and that is where he ended up -working for a mean old man who had no compassion and made my Father stay in the barn on Sundays when he and his Mother would go off for the day.
    This was an interesting read but I have no respect or good feeling towards Margaret MacPherson.

  9. August 6, 2016

    My great grandmother Annie Dorothy Frampton arrived at the Stratford Home in 1888 at the age of 4. I have notarized document. Amazingly we were able to obtain her birth certificate from Somerset House in England. It seems London kept pretty good track of their orphans.

  10. Budisonata permalink
    May 14, 2017

    The social commentators at that time were against the immigration of children to Canada and other realms of the empire. They want to give the impression that things were better back in England. That is a disgraceful revisionism of history. As mentioned in the article Victorian London had up to 30,000 street kids, many of whom were social orphans, meaning they had living parents who abandoned, abused or neglected them. These kids run away from their homes due to their intolerable and very violent home life. A lot of parents were alcoholics who just used their kids like farm animals to earn money. Irresponsible and cruel parents who bred like rats, having 10-12 children in a one room slum without running water, heating, cooking facilities and toilets. Most of these kids were starved, beaten, left to freeze and made to work as young as four. As a horrific example of how things were back then, a prospective tenant was inspecting a room to let when he noticed an awful stench coming from a closet. On closer inspection, he found huge mounds of shit left there by the previous occupants. Because these women popped out babies year after year, they fed the babies gin and opium called among other things Mother’s Helper to keep them quiet. Opium had a double edge. It kept the babies quiet and took away their appetites. The worst exploitation occurred not in the satanic mills and factories but in the homes. Children as young as four were made to work 10-14 hours a day, locked in their mother’s knees, and were slapped if they fell asleep. A six- year old was roused at four to walk eight miles to her work carrying bricks and walked the eight miles homes after six in the afternoon. The memoirs of a ten year old recalled her mother kicking him down the stairs if he didn’t carry the buckets of water fast enough. If you didn’t work, even if you were a child, you were fed only bread and water. Those are the lucky ones. I could go on and on. It’s always convenient to blame the greedy capitalists and the ruling aristocrats for the appalling poverty. Academics, authors and historians tend to brush away the more unpalatable truth about the poor. They sanitize history and idealise the poor. But the worst exploiters of the poor were the poor themselves. We like our history and reality that are easy to swallow.

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